Dr. Yuanbo Zhang, a physics professor in Shanghai, once had a promising career ahead of him in the United States. In 2000, Zhang, a China native, began a graduate program in physics at Columbia University, eventually earning his PhD in 2006, along with accolades for his groundbreaking work with the ultrathin carbon material graphene. He then began doing postdoctoral research work at University of California Berkeley and IBM.
In 2008, however, he faced some major headaches. That year, he went home to apply for a new J1 visa in order to return to Berkeley and was stuck in China for several months because the U.S. government selected his application for additional administrative review, a common background check faced by many foreign scientists. “The biggest frustration for me,” Zhang says of his time in the United States, “was always the U.S. visa process.” While stuck at home in 2008, however, he learned about a professorial job at Shanghai’s Fudan University, which offered considerable benefits. He ultimately decided to pass up an academic position at the University of Virginia to take the Fudan University job. He began teaching there in 2011.
Zhang’s story is not uncommon. Through its ambitious national talent development plan, China is actively recruiting highly qualified Chinese nationals living abroad to return home, offering them substantial financial rewards and prestigious titles. In Zhang’s case, this meant three million Yuan ($475,000) in supplemental government funding for his lab at Fudan University, as well as housing compensation and a coveted, local residency pass. The university also offered an academic job to Zhang’s similarly educated spouse, in addition to a generous salary package for them both. That offer was a lot to pass up for someone who would’ve faced a long road to obtain permanent residency in the United States, thanks to the country’s current backlog of applications from China. “The entire process takes too long,” Zhang explains, “If the U.S. simplified things, it would be a big motivation for students to remain in America.”