OPINION – Homeward Bound: Reverse Migration Of Talents To Macau

Earlier this year Zweig, Kang and Wang’s study of ‘reverse migration’ to mainland China’s scientific and academic institutions argued that attracting high‑level talent to return to universities and research institutions in mainland China, reversing the brain drain, was not straightforward. Though China had invested considerable sums of money in programmes to attract home high-level talent, making it work well was challenging and contingent on more than material and financial matters.

Opinion | Keith Morrison – Author and educationist

Returnees, said the authors, sought more supportive research environments, less complicated human relations, lack of ‘excessive administrative interference’ and over‑regulation, better human‑centred work relations, opportunities for personal and career development, and the replacement of ‘guanxi’ – whom you know – and endless hours spent on cultivating it, with transparency and a concern for genuine quality rather than simply its appearance.

Attracting highly talented Chinese to return home was affected by how welcoming its institutions were, and how supportive of reform (e.g. of institutional culture, laws and regulations) the institutions and their leaders were. Leaders of the most attractive institutions to returnees had worked overseas themselves and had learned to reform and open up their institution’s culture.

The authors noted that resistance to institutional change in some of China’s institutions deterred potential returnees. Indeed, the highest level talent preferred to be part‑time returnees, and it was lower‑level talent that typically accepted full‑time posts. Part‑time returnees, i.e. the ‘best’ researchers, held onto their full‑time academic positions overseas.

The authors were referring to universities, research institutions, scientists and academics. Can their analysis apply to Macau’s higher education institutions and to its other employment providers, institutions and organizations more widely?

Looking at Macau in terms of these factors concerning returnees provides a salutary report card, and on many fronts. Macau suffers from ‘excessive administrative interference’ and over‑regulation; it is bogged down by leaden, bottom‑heavy and top‑heavy bureaucrats and officialdom. ‘Guanxi’ is alive and well, perhaps unsurprising in a small territory. Opportunities for personal and career development are limited and often affected by whom you know and/or do not know. There is limited career diversity. Returning to a face‑obsessed society and self‑censorship presents a reverse culture shock. Transparency and openness are in short supply. Hierarchical management prevails, leading to silent, risk‑averse obedience in the workforce, so innovation suffers or is channelled into a few areas. Genuine diversity is narrow and on infertile ground.

The OECD in 2002 noted that attracting returnees must include ensuring that work and career environments provide ‘rewarding opportunities’ for those who have acquired and upgraded their skills overseas. Further, the United Nations in 2019 commented that an ‘open and transparent government’ and its offices, with streamlined visa processes, were significant factors. Comparing this to Macau is rather a sorry story, where understanding the workings of Macau’s civil service is an adventure into optimism and obscurantism.

Returnees also seek ease of access to jobs for spouses and partners, together with decent schooling for children, positive career prospects in diverse occupations, ready access to information, affordable accommodation (a thing of the past in Macau) and an attractive physical and outdoor environment. None of these is obvious or assured in today’s Macau.

Macau has some positives: a very low tax rate; the green shoots of a pension scheme; some financial support for residents; people who are much friendlier, more tolerant and far less immodest and arrogant than in neighbouring regions; a safe city; and where a mediocre employee elsewhere can be a big fish in small pond Macau.

However, why should Macau’s overseas citizens consider coming back on a permanent or even temporary or part-time basis to a life that is no match for working and living abroad? Being in Macau means living in this small city capsule and its surveillance environment, in which returnees can only dream of clean air, open spaces and fresh fields in every sense, and freedom of thought and action. As Zweig, Kang and Wang note, ‘the best may not be returning’; who can blame them?