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From Brain Drain to Brain Circulation: Transnational Communities and Regional Upgrading in India and China

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Global Labour in Distress, Volume I

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By 2000, over one-third of Silicon Valley’s high-skilled workers were foreign-born, and overwhelmingly from Asia. These U.S.-educated engineers are transforming developmental opportunities for formerly peripheral regions as they build professional and business connections to their home countries. In a process more akin to “brain circulation” than “brain drain,” these engineers and entrepreneurs, aided by the lowered transaction costs associated with digitization, are transferring technical and institutional know-how between distant regional economies faster and more flexibly than most large corporations. This chapter examines how Chinese- and Indian-born engineers are accelerating the development of the information technology industries in their home countries—initially by tapping the low-cost skill in their home countries, and over time by contributing to highly localized processes of entrepreneurial experimentation and upgrading, while maintain close ties to the technology and markets in Silicon Valley. However, these successful models also raise several questions about the broader relevance of brain circulation outside of several key countries, and regions of those countries, within the global South.

AnnaLee Saxenian is dean and professor at the School of Information Management and Systems and professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of California, Berkeley. She is currently exploring how immigrant engineers and scientists are transferring technology entrepreneurship to regions in Asia. (Studies in Comparative International Development, Summer 2005, Vol. 40, No. 2, pp. 35–61)

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    NSF data show that over 95 percent of foreign-born engineering and science doctorate holders from India and China planned to stay in the United States after graduation.

  2. 2.

    Indians accounted for 13 percent and Chinese for 14 percent of the region’s engineers and scientists.

  3. 3.

    Interview with Ta-lin Hsu, San Francisco, CA, June 1, 1997.

  4. 4.

    Interview with Julie Yu Li, Shenzhen, China., January 11, 2001.

  5. 5.

    Interview with Tang Hui-hao, Berkeley, CA, September 10, 2004.

  6. 6.

    Interview with Min Zhu, San Jose, CA, April 16, 2001.


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Saxenian, A. (2022). From Brain Drain to Brain Circulation: Transnational Communities and Regional Upgrading in India and China. In: Goulart, P., Ramos, R., Ferrittu, G. (eds) Global Labour in Distress, Volume I. Palgrave Readers in Economics. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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