Elite Returnees in Beijing and Bangalore: Information Technology and Beyond

Kellee S. Tsai

Venue: Room 101, 1555 Century Avenue, NYU Shanghai
Date: Monday, November 26, 2018
Time: 17:30 - 19:00 CST

Within the past two decades, Zhongguancun (ZGC in Beijing) and Bangalore have become known as the “Silicon Valleys” of the two countries. Both areas possess a concentration of top-tier educational and research institutions, and have also benefited from state investment in infrastructure. Their transformation into leading centers for information and communications technology (ICT) has also been attributed to return migration of those who have studied and/or worked abroad. Anne Lee Saxenian has described this migratory dynamic as “brain circulation,” as a sanguine counterpoint to earlier concerns about national brain drain. In this spirit, China and India have enacted policies to encourage return migration of highly educated talent. Although the role of the Chinese and Indian diaspora in the ICT sector has generated considerable attention and debate, the developmental impact of returnees in Beijing and Bangalore is not confined to the ICT industry. The sector itself has introduced new patterns of consumption with implications for the local economy and labor market. Based on industry data, research reports, and field interviews in both cities, the networked effects of return migration will be compared in three areas:  ICT, venture capital (VC), and philanthropy/social entrepreneurship. 

Analytically, this study outlines a framework for understanding returnee impact that includes both the individual attributes of returnees and the institutional context of different policy environments. Building on the notion of “mixed embeddedness” from economic geography, the proposed typology situates returnees within their individual social networks in relation to the opportunity structures of particular sectors. In the three areas under consideration, state policies and the sectoral ecosystem are key in defining the opportunity structures for returnee impact. One of the theoretical implications of this approach is that the interaction between the state and returnees represents a sectorally-contingent expression of state-society relations. In this pattern of interaction, certain components of “returnee society” arguably possess greater leverage than local citizens without overseas experience. This is especially apparent in Bangalore, where the privileged status of returnees has generated new hierarchies in local society. By contrast, even though some Chinese returnees enjoy policy privileges, domestic entrepreneurs in Beijing often have stronger networks and local practical knowledge than returnees who lived abroad for longer periods. The observed differences between Bangalore and Beijing may be traced to variation in the nature of returnee networks and the institutional context of particular sectors.

Kellee S. Tsai (Ph.D., Political Science, Columbia University) is Dean of Humanities and Social Science and Chair Professor of Social Science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST). She previously served as Head of the Division of Social Science at HKUST; and Vice Dean of Humanities and Social Science, and Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. She is the author or co-author of five books, including Back-Alley Banking: Private Entrepreneurs in China (Cornell 2002), Capitalism without Democracy: The Private Sector in Contemporary China (Cornell 2007), and State Capitalism, Institutional Adaptation, and the Chinese Miracle (co-edited with Barry Naughton, Cambridge 2015).  She has published articles in Business and Politics, China Journal, China Quarterly, Comparative Political Studies, Journal of Asian Studies, Journal of Development Studies, Perspectives on Politics, World Development, and World Politics, among others. Tsai’s research interests include informal finance, informal institutions, internet finance, endogenous institutional change, local development, political economy of development, private entrepreneurship, shadow banking, and migration with an area focus on China and India.

Tsai previously worked in the New York offices of Morgan Stanley and Women’s World Banking, and consulted for the World Bank’s Consultative Group to Assist the Poorest (CGAP), venture capital firms, and government subcontractors.  She has served on the Board of the National Committee on US-China Relations (2008-2013); Editorial Board of the Contemporary Issues in Asia and the Pacific series at Stanford University Press (2006-2010); and external review team for Harvard Unversity’s Asia-related programs, centers, and institutes (2015).  Tsai currently serves on the Editorial Boards of Asia Global Online, China Sociological Review, and China Policy Journal; the International Advisory Board of the Center for Contemporary China Studies at National Tsinghua University; and the Policy Advocacy Committee of Oxfam-Hong Kong.  

Introduction and moderation of the Q&A by Xiaogang Wu, Visiting Professor of Sociology, NYU Shanghai and Professor of Social Science and Director of the Center for Applied Social and Economic Research, HKUST.

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