In the 1970s, long before the word “globalization” achieved common currency, the buzzword in India was “brain drain” — an apparent problem that almost everyone in my family and circle of friends wanted to be part of.
Many young men and women educated at highly subsidized public institutions started leaving the country in the 1960s to deepen or monetize their skills in First World countries. Unlike short-term contract workers servicing the construction boom in the Persian Gulf and Southeast Asia, these expensively educated seekers of greener grass, many of whom ended up as prominent bankers, entrepreneurs, innovators and scholars abroad, seemed unlikely to return to a slow-growth economy.
The loss of the best and brightest may have diminished the growth prospects of what was then a very poor postcolonial country. But in the 1990s, as news spread of a fresh economic bonanza in India, some of these long-departed brothers, sisters, cousins, nephews and nieces began to return. In many ways, the achievements as well as the illusions of “rising” India in the past two decades are largely because of this repatriating Indian diaspora, which brought fresh energy, capital, information, networks and ideas to the motherland.
Disillusionment with India’s political dysfunction and seemingly ineradicable corruption and inefficiency has made many of them — such as the former chief executive at a major software company I met recently in Singapore — want to go back to relatively low-growth but less challenging and more secure economic environments.
This is part of a broader flight. India’s biggest corporate beneficiaries of economic liberalization — names like Tata, Mahindra, Birla — are putting the bulk of their investments abroad. Escaping rapidly declining educational institutes at home, more Indian students than ever before — the number has risen 256 percent in the last decade to almost 200,000 — have gone abroad, to Spain and China as well as the United States, Britain and Australia. Young technology professionals and bright undergraduates are moving to Singapore, Australia and Silicon Valley. An influx of wealthy businessmen and financiers has made Indians the highest income ethnic group in Singapore.
A similar quest for more congenial climes is apparent among China’s privileged classes. The country’s rapid economic growth was actually triggered in the late 1970s and 1980s by its far-flung and patriotic diaspora. But the New China they enabled is now a place — environmentally challenged and politically and economically unstable — that many of its wealthy inhabitants hope to leave. A recent report by Bain & Co. revealed that an astonishing 60 percent of Chinese it surveyed with a net worth of $1.5 million or more wanted to emigrate, and a third of them already have investments abroad.
Chinese seeking second and third homes, and foreign residency and passports, have been pushing up real-estate prices from Hong Kong to London; many are even buying up apartments left empty or unfinished by Spain’s construction boom. Hong Kong, outshone by Shanghai in recent years, has become a fresh magnet for mainland Chinese. Travel agents in Hong Kong have made a fortune transporting pregnant Chinese women to their city-state. Tens of thousands of mainland births — almost half of all births in Hong Kong — have forced the city’s government to regulate hospital bookings and even restrict pregnant women from traveling there.