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China Tries to Woo Its Tech Talent Back Home

Silicon Valley dot-com casualties can return to a booming economy in their native land.

November 25, 2002|Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writer

SAN JOSE — After two decades of watching thousands of top computer engineering and science students immigrate to the United States, the Chinese government has launched an aggressive push to win back some of the country's brainpower from the economically stressed Silicon Valley.

"We think some Chinese engineers will go back to China because they have been laid off here and have no jobs," said Wang Yunxiang, China's consul general in San Francisco. "In comparison, the overall situation in China is very good."

Since 1979, when the late leader Deng Xiaoping broke with China's isolationist policy, more than 400,000 mainland Chinese students have traveled abroad for graduate study. Only a relatively small number, estimated at 10% to 25%, have returned home.

Many ended up settling in the Silicon Valley, where they own start-up tech businesses or work as integrated circuit design engineers in many of the region's most successful companies.

But the downturn in the U.S. high-tech industry, along with a booming market in China, has renewed hopes that the people whom former Premier Zhao Ziyang once called China's "stored brainpower overseas" may be ready to return.

Many cities have shiny skyscrapers labeled hopefully in Chinese: "Returning Student Entrepreneurial Building." Chinese companies and development parks now offer salary and benefits for recruits roughly equivalent in purchasing power to those here in one of America's most expensive communities.

The Chinese government also sponsors all-expenses-paid trips to China, where top officials fawn over visiting engineers, who are sumptuously entertained.

A returning engineer with several years' experience in America can expect free housing, a car and driver, and other perks not available in the United States. Foreign science and technology degrees convey high social status on returning engineers.

Different Job Markets

"We are kind of in the doldrums in the job market over here, but over there people are welcomed with open arms," said Robert P. Lee, chief executive of two Silicon Valley software companies and president of the Asia America MultiTechnology Assn., one of several business associations composed primarily of mainland and Hong Kong Chinese engineers.

"The benefit packages are smaller but, in the local economy, still quite good," he said.

Many expect the recruiting push to accelerate now that 59-year-old Hu Jintao, a graduate of the prestigious Qinghua University engineering school, has been chosen as the country's new leader. In a rare overseas visit laden with political symbolism, Hu toured the Silicon Valley even before being named general secretary of the ruling Communist Party last week.

The China push was on display most recently at a San Jose job fair -- paid for by Chinese state sponsors -- that drew more than 4,000 China-born engineers to the Santa Clara County Convention Center.

"It was much bigger than the typical recruiting session that traditional Chinese provincial governments have been doing over the past two years," said AnnaLee Saxenian, a UC Berkeley professor who has done extensive studies of the Silicon Valley's immigrant communities. "There is a sense now that they can draw on this overseas Chinese community who are now willing to go back and start companies."

"Platinum" sponsors, which included the Shenyang and Shanghai technology parks, paid $10,000 to take part in the fair. China's Ministry of Science and Technology was listed as a "supporting organization." The only U.S. participant was Pittsburg, Calif., a struggling blue-collar city on the Sacramento River that came seeking new businesses. At many of the booths, engineers were lined up several deep.

"Ten years ago," said Stephen W.Y. Lai, who was manning a booth at the job fair for the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks, "no one would have been interested because there were too many opportunities in the U.S."

Some of those attending the Nov. 8-10 "China Meets Silicon Valley" event said they were attracted by the opportunities they see in China.

Chu Jiajin, 69, a retired electrical engineering professor from China, said he is tempted to return to his native land after being laid off from his $100,000-a-year job at Quicksilver Technology, a start-up integrated circuit company in San Jose.

But his son, Jeff Chu, 37, is hesitant. The younger Chu and his wife, both engineers and naturalized American citizens, live comfortably in a $900,000 home in Cupertino and are reluctant to give up their combined $250,000 salaries to take a risk on making it in China.

"There are some good opportunities that I would consider in China if we were not doing so well here," said the younger Chu, a chip designer with a graduate degree in electrical engineering from San Jose State University.

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