China’s Overseas Tech Talent Is Torn Over Going Home
The possibilities are great, but the politics are risky.
When Liu Chen (who asked to use a pseudonym), a leading engineer at Google’s TensorFlow artificial intelligence (AI) team, decided he was leaving the firm to move back to Beijing, his friends at home were confused. Chinese students flock to California’s universities and tech firms by the thousands to start tech careers. Nine out of 10 Chinese AI graduate students remain in the United Stated five years after graduation. But at the edge of this digital frontier, an emerging generation of Chinese experts—educated and trained in the United States—are heeding the call to join the project of national rejuvenation at home, where their Silicon Valley pedigree gives them intoxicating power to reshape organizations, industry, and culture.
As China’s tech industry has matured, major firms like Baidu, Tencent, Alibaba, and ByteDance have all established satellite offices in the San Francisco Bay Area, where recruiters compete for Chinese talent with firms like Google, Apple, and Facebook. They offer a workplace culture where their native language is spoken regularly and on-campus cafeterias serve Chinese cuisine. For many, it’s a staging ground before they take on senior roles back on the mainland. Chinese engineers and scientists power a lot of U.S. firms’ innovation but ascend to management less often than their Indian or European counterparts, increasing the allure of returning home.
Back at Chinese tech giants like ByteDance, Baidu, or Tencent, they’re a coveted talent group. “I got interviewed a lot internally … on Google’s software engineering and engineering culture,” Liu said of his arrival at Tencent. “ByteDance is copying Google’s engineering culture and some best practices,” he said of TikTok’s creator. “Baidu has always been copying Google.” Tencent, he said, also uses Google’s engineering style guide.
The Chinese tech sector’s relative adolescence means firms have focused more on rapid iteration at the expense of long-term product stability—a sort of start-up mentality writ large across the industry. “A lot of my friends do not have proper technical aesthetics. They only try to finish the job, but they do not care about if it is beautifully done,” Liu said. This deferred digital maintenance results in brittle codebases, security vulnerabilities, or dependencies on outdated third-party software that are difficult and frustrating to unravel. Veterans like Liu understand the methodologies necessary to address these systemic problems. “I think with more and more people like me coming back to China, we will change the technical culture in China.”
The size and power of Chinese firms drives much of their appeal to engineers. Tencent’s WeChat boasts more than 1.2 billion users and has become a de facto digital profile for Chinese citizens, facilitating everything from identification and mobile banking to health care and food delivery. ByteDance’s TikTok short video app has become a hit in the United States and Europe. Behind these behemoths are an array of medium to large enterprises often unknown in Western markets, many of which count Chinese local and regional governments and state-owned financial institutions as their primary customers. That’s been fueling the growth of a domestic AI industry that ballooned to more than a $75 billion market in 2018. The party intends to double down on this progress by plowing $400 million into the sector in the hopes of establishing China as the leader of AI by 2030.
With that huge growth has come a demand for experienced engineers, with Chinese firms sometimes outbidding their U.S. counterparts by offering greater influence and better compensation packages. Many developing these technologies may work on refining specific parts of a model or algorithm, often unaware how their source code is used in third-party applications or even the company’s internal products. The combination of powerful open-source toolkits and the harvesting of massive troves of data from their population of 800 million internet-connected citizens is fueling Chinese innovation in AI and deep learning—technologies reliant on huge data sets for improving accuracy and innovation.
Mid-level companies like CloudWalk Technology, for example, can process tens of millions of video recordings to improve the facial recognition software they sell to more than a thousand customers, from banks to law enforcement and intelligence. Their tech has been used by local and federal governments in China in a controversial effort to identify ethnic minority Uyghurs both inside and outside of their native Xinjiang province, where a mass crackdown, recently deemed “genocidal” by several foreign governments, is deeply intertwined with the use of policing technologies.
These stories are dystopic. But inside China and within its global digital ecosystem abroad, these technologies are also delivering a tangible increase in living standards and reinforcing a sense of confidence in the nation and its culture as a global superpower. Advanced tech in classrooms, hospitals, and online services simplifies life, makes communication easier, and offers new career paths.
Chinese tech is also dominated by private firms, albeit ones that, as with all businesses in China, exist because of the sufferance of Chinese power. But especially in areas where government-favored giants haven’t emerged, it’s a fiercely competitive and innovative industry, which comes with its own appeal. Chinese AI expert-turned-investor Kai-Fu Lee sees Chinese tech entrepreneurs as brave gladiators fighting valiantly for survival. U.S. tech entrepreneurship is, by contrast, “too gentlemanly.” Although Silicon Valley prides itself on its commitment to protecting and respecting intellectual property, Chinese firms can rely on no such respect from their competitors. “If they succeed in building a product that people want, they don’t get to declare victory,” Lee said. “They have to declare war.”
This scooping of competitors’ technology is a competitive advantage that allows Chinese firms to iterate faster on new features, perhaps even putting them ahead of their U.S. competitors. “My hard-working colleagues can reimplement a state-of-the-art model from a paper in a weekend’s time and adapt it to our own purpose in less than two weeks,” Liu said. “That’s horrible power. I personally don’t encourage this, but everyone is doing this in Chinese tech company.”
However, although the country’s technological growth has been incredibly rapid, some workplace dynamics are proving less malleable. Western firms’ flatter corporate structures and more egalitarian innovation models represent a far-reaching change in management style to a society where strategy is directed from the top and dissent is often discouraged or outright banned, both in business and government.
By contrast, the U.S. tech sector’s continually evolving business and management models often focus on further empowering engineers to define their working lives and the direction of the products they build. Google famously encourages employees to spend up to 20 percent of their time on company-related passion projects. Spotify empowers its engineers to join any “guild”—small, cross-functional teams that focus on certain parts of business or technology—and flat out refuse to work on projects they deem boring, unimportant, or unethical.
Raising doubts of the kind that Google engineers expressed over Dragonfly (a censored search engine for the Chinese market) or cooperation with the U.S. Defense Department is far harder in China—and often nearly impossible. But there are issues that can—and are—being discussed, chiefly personal privacy. In 2018, the China Consumers Association reported privacy policies of more than 90 percent of its 100 polled firms didn’t meet a “basic threshold.” In response, the government established an ongoing special working group on privacy, which recently resulted in a couple of drafts being signed into law. In March of 2020, Tsinghua University law professor Lao Dongyan took a rare public stance against the integration of facial recognition in the Beijing metro, stating it was “time to say enough on security issues.” Although the party is willing to allow some debate about privacy and security policy, which subjects are off limits to debate is always at the discretion of the party.
It’s a vector Lee understands intimately. Founder of long-since shuttered Google China and a veteran of Apple, Microsoft, and Google, he was once vocal on Twitter and its Chinese equivalent, Weibo, about free speech and censorship. “Is there any hope,” he asked in 2013, “for a search engine that is developed without a commitment to the open sharing of information?” He also suggested social media as a possible tool for citizens to hold the government accountable.
His behavior put him at odds with government censors, resulting in dozens of short-term account suspensions. Since that time, Lee has become more circumspect about the Chinese Communist Party in interviews, social media, and public speaking engagements. In his book AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order, he details many vectors of U.S.-China competitiveness in AI, including government policy, but mentions none of the issues around freedom of information.
A more authoritarian posture from the Chinese Communist Party under Chinese President Xi Jinping’s leadership has had a chilling effect on this type of dissent, not only to those living in the country but to an enormous Chinese diaspora living abroad. Vocal opposition to government policy puts families and friends at home at risk. This expectation of silence is a sacrifice for returning to the mainland that many are prepared to accept. “The moment I decided to come back,” Liu said, “I have decided to give up my privacy and part of [my] freedom of expression”
The Chinese diaspora often speak of the perceptual gap formed abroad.
“It’s a lot different now,” said Zhang Chao (who asked to use a pseudonym), a process engineer for an industry leader in Silicon Valley that makes semiconductor etching technology. After more than a decade living in the United States, “my mom and I would have [a] completely different kind of view” about what is happening in China. “People from China, they are sort of blocked to some degree. They don’t know a lot of stuff like we do because … we can read a lot and most of these stuff … have been censored back in China.”
Part of this gulf is exacerbated by companies like Toutiao, ByteDance’s news app that scrapes the web for content, processes language, and then uses AI to rewrite headlines to drive engagement with its more than 120 million daily active users. To Liu, it’s just another example of the short-sightedness of recommendation algorithms, a specific application of AI he refuses to work on. And although U.S. platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube led the way on this technology, their design is the subject of continual debate in the United States and Europe, particularly in respect to their relationship to governments and censorship, a conversation that is implicitly off limits in China.
Outside China, the Chinese Communist Party has been leveraging Western social media platforms to frame itself as a benevolent and competent global leader. Party propaganda officers have taken to Twitter with provocative statements to sow doubt in U.S. political leadership and the origin of COVID-19 while a flood of bot accounts nicknamed the “wumao army” descended on the platform with pro-China messages. U.S. social media companies’ response to these official and unofficial tactics has been sluggish and confused, allowing the platforms to continue as important tools in the party’s international propaganda efforts.
But for the more global class of Chinese citizens, the Chinese Communist Party’s public relations campaign is just a transparent lie. “I don’t trust anything from [the] Chinese government,” Liu said. And although a great deal of the country’s less mobile citizens also see through these efforts, returning home is a stark reminder of how effective this rhetoric has actually been in some corners of Chinese society. “I always hear friends argue that most people don’t even need the right to choose.”
The full-throated dialogue in the United States is not easily forgotten for some. “I [have] inherit[ed] a lot of American culture,” Zhang said, “so I think that some of the stuff that I would consider not right if I were not here studying in the United States … I would look at things differently I were not here.” These unspoken shared values are an incentive to move and stay abroad, contributing to the ongoing brain drain of some of China’s most sophisticated minds. Many go on to become pioneers in their field, adopt U.S. citizenship, and, like Zhang, have no plans of returning to China.
In addition to Chinese emigrants’ pursuit of STEM careers, many are also attracted to studying political science in the United States. “In both of the Stanford classes I teach, I use offensive hacking, censorship, and disinformation from [China] as real-world examples,” said Alex Stamos, a professor of safe technology at the Stanford Internet Observatory and former chief information security officer at Facebook. “My Chinese-born students have always engaged thoughtfully and openly during what must be difficult subjects involving their country of origin. Privately, many of these students are clear that their goal is to stay in the United States (usually Silicon Valley) and to make a new life for themselves and their families. The ones that are likely to head back to China talk about making it a more open and democratic society.”
But few Chinese students or professionals have the confidence to speak publicly—or even privately—about these issues. According to Liu, “the only people I see who care about arts and political topics are either people from rich family or people with overseas education/working background.” There are practical problems of everyday life that can be addressed through science and engineering that don’t involve a collision with the government, even if they often involve unconscious bargains with political limits.
“I have a louder voice [in China],” Liu said. He attributes much of it to being an ex-Googler and a Silicon Valley vet. To him and his returning peers, these elite credentials are a potential ticket to a good life in China. But he knows some issues are now off the table. When I asked him about human rights in Xinjiang or political freedoms in Hong Kong, he demurred. Perhaps, he said, that’s something we can discuss when he’s in the United States again.
Correction, May 17, 2021: A previous version misstated the number of internet users in China.
Tomás Sidenfaden is an American software engineer and the founder of Nuprizm, a social news platform.