Editor's Notes: U.S. Should Win a ‘War for Talent’ With China

By Stew Magnuson

iStock illustration

China watchers Alex Stone and Peter W. Singer in an Oct. 12 posting on Defense One reported that the People’s Liberation Army is preparing to counter U.S. moves designed to lessen its research-and-development prowess.

One way it intends to compete with America is in a newly declared “war for talent.”

Influential leaders in China are “calling for ‘pivoting from technology acquisition to talent acquisition’ as a feasible strategy in a protracted tech war, because ‘strategic scientists’ and ‘leading scientists’ are ‘more important resources than technology itself,’” the two authors wrote. 

“Chinese policymakers will likely pursue talent acquisition — Chinese nationals, foreign experts and foreign students — more aggressively on a global scale than before,” the authors wrote.

If there is a “war for talent” brewing with China, then it is one that the U.S. and its allies should easily win.

Note the selection of the word “should” rather than “will.”

Knee-jerk anti-immigration policies and everyday red tape could certainly torpedo efforts to lure the best and brightest to the United States, or worse, kick off a brain drain that sees talent lured away by big paychecks in China.

But there are some reasons why the United States, and partners such as Australia and Japan, and other R&D powerhouse allies in Western Europe, Israel and East Asia, should come out ahead in any war for talent with China.

First, any scientist from a foreign nation who wants to live and work in China should go there and breathe the air before making any decision.

And “breathe the air” is not some kind of euphemism. I’m talking about going there and experiencing the high-density smog firsthand. Some Chinese company or research institution may offer a “strategic scientist” a load of money to work in one of the nation’s major cities, but the air pollution will knock years off his or her life.

Take it from someone who ended up in a Taipei hospital with a bronchial infection and developed asthma as an adult after years of sucking in the dirty air in Asian cities — air pollution matters.

During a two-week trip through China in the early 1990s, I experienced it firsthand. I’ll never forget the eye-watering stench as I walked over an urban river in Shanghai and blowing my nose in Beijing and having the snot come out black. A gross image, I know, yet illustrative.

That was decades ago, but from all accounts, China’s pollution problem has only worsened.

Foreign “talent” also won’t be able to breathe the sweet air of freedom. Yes, that is a euphemism. The surveillance state will be keeping a close eye on all foreigners as potential spies, and xenophobia runs strong in China. And if a foreigner runs afoul of the law, they can’t expect much in terms of due process or a balanced judicial system.

So knowing all that, who would want to go live and work in the People’s Republic of China?

Well, to state the obvious, people from China. It’s their home, where their family lives and they are as patriotic as anybody.

Yet thousands of Chinese graduate students come to the United States every year to study at its top-notch universities. In a past column, I advocated for allowing the best and the brightest of these students to remain in the United States.

Stone and Singer in their article said the war for talent might mean China will want to “decouple,” or cut these academic ties.

Talented Chinese PhDs would have powerful reasons for wanting to return to their homeland. The government there might even blackmail or coerce them.

But in the event someone wants to remain and make their lives in the United States, they should be given the chance and maybe even offered incentives to stay.

The idea that talent and genius is evenly distributed throughout the world but opportunity isn’t, applies to another category of talent: those coming from other nations.

The United States needs to bring these students here to learn, and possibly stay and contribute to our industries. That may mean scholarships and financial aid and easy paths to citizenship, not roadblocks.

If there is a war for talent, a small victory for the United States is bringing a talented scientist, technologist, engineer or mathematician to live and work here.

The second-best outcome is that they end up with an ally in Europe, Australia or Japan.

A loss is when they choose to bring their talents to China.

The United States and its allies should easily win a talent war with China, but there are no guarantees.

Yes, we have our “code red” air pollution days in the summer. Yes, we have xenophobia and an imperfect judicial system. No place is paradise. And people have been known to make compromises and live in less than ideal situations for big paychecks.

When it comes to lifestyles, if a “strategic scientist” has a choice between China and the United States, Europe or Australia, it should be a no-brainer.

The biggest opponent is ourselves. The United States, Australia and Japan — three advanced nations standing against China — all have well-established anti-immigration political constituencies and policies that could certainly play into China’s hands.

Welcome mats — not walls — should lead to an easy victory in this particular “war.”

Topics: Defense Department

Comments (1)

Re: U.S. Should Win a ‘War for Talent’ With China

Very good Editorial and I do agree, but is it really that simple in the "War on Talent?"

Yes, the points presented here are valid, and yet it's US politicians and management that seems to affect those hired with exceptional talent. For example, take home remodelers. One crew is Chinese and the other is American. Both have exceptional talent in remodeling "Everything" in an old house. Which one gets hired? The Chinese construction crew costs less than the American construction crew and does just as good a job and also works very hard so it gets hired for less cost. When it comes to Defense, as a Defense blogger said, "We have to do it just a little better than the other guy." The Chinese can do it better, faster, and cheaper than the USA in many regards, but not all.

So one can have exceptional talent in the military and the Defense industry, but how about the politicians? I bet Congress members at 60-80+ years of age never knew how racked with scandals, insecurity, investigations, slandering, discrimination, and hatred their workplace is until recently. Many managers in corporations and officers in the military just want to get promoted, some stepping on their subordinates in the process. All this is learned from job and work experience.

Just because the great talent is hired doesn't mean that the great talent stays. Most want more pay and will leave a company to pursue more money. It's up to the corporation and management to "discover" these doubtful people and pay more to provide for loyalty because in good times, many employees will decide what is best of them, not what is best for the company and the department. Some even defect to the competitor (that is evident in high-tech high-paying jobs as a job is for a lifestyle, not for the good of the company or the nation). And that is a problem with the USA in that China may hire talent that stays, but the USA hires talent that leaves in pursuit of stock, money, perks, better commute and safety, equality, or promotion. Freedom has a way of seeing freedom. That is reality. Friends and coworkers that one makes at work isn't permanent with "At will" employment. And what is even worse is that when one employee or manager leaves, sometimes the whole team leaves with that person to follow that leaver to another company. I've seen that happen---a total "Brain and talent drain" on that corporation that drags that department down and the remaining employees in the department are left wondering why they should stay if the pyramid got chopped by two-thirds. The leavers don't care as that is "Employee freedom," especially if the leaver is upset with something that causes a departure. Flinging lawsuits around even makes it worse.

So hiring for the best talent is a good way to have the best workers working, but I've been to departments where workers abandon people because 'The grass is actually greener on the other side" and the first people to get to that pasture get the best grazing. The last people to get to the pasture get the dirt and weed tufts. It's usually a game of "What is best for me, not you, or the company, or the nation, or You First." And that is the job of management because with exceptional talent, these people are smart enough not to be Greenhorns after a few years of work experience.

And if one is not careful, that leads to paying exceptional talent for espionage and defection...and that has happened before too.

Trisaw at 12:39 PM
Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Please enter the text displayed in the image.