Over the past few decades, China has become a pharmaceutical manufacturing center due to large government investments, lower manufacturing costs, and past experience in generics manufacturing. This is particularly beneficial for Western countries; however, there are still language and cultural barriers in the way. One factor however is proving to be both beneficial to the Chinese biotech industry, and East-West collaboration alike, and that would be the increasing return of Chinese Sea Turtles.
Chinese Sea Turtles | The Tides of China’s Biotech Industry Are Shifting
Reforms and initiatives in China’s policy have resulted in an increase in Western biopharmaceutical activity in the East. Many major pharmaceutical companies based in the West are currently opening new biotech research facilities and increasing their production in China.
One major reason is that the cost of conducting biotech R&D in China is up to one-eighth of that in the United States. However there are several other factors that have influenced this recent growth in biotechnology in China.
Educated Chinese Sea Turtles Swim East
In 1978, following the Cultural Revolution, many Chinese students traveled abroad for graduate study. Most of these individuals were among China’s top achieving in academia, and the majority stayed abroad in countries such as the United States and Western Europe because of better employment opportunities.
However, over the past decades China has experienced a large influx of returnees due to increasing job opportunities and government incentives. From 2001 to 2004 the Chinese government made significant investments in China’s biotech industry in order to promote the economy.
Initiatives such as the ‘100 Talents’ program, that offered high salaries and generous research budgets to young, motivated scientists, provided further incentives for return. As a result, there has been a significant increase in the homecoming of talented and Western-educated, Chinese scientists.
Every year, over 100,000 Chinese students leave China to study overseas. These graduates are now returning in increasingly larger numbers, from around 6,000 per year in 1995, to over 40,000 in 2006.
Returning Chinese sea turtles or ‘haigui’ – a phrase likening returnees to sea turtles going back to the beach where they were born to lay their eggs – are bringing their expertise to the Chinese biotech industry.
These individuals are providing further incentive to Western companies to expand their biotech investments into research in China. As one returnee explained, by running an institute in China returnees serve as a bridge for collaboration with the U.S.
Potentially Detrimental Factors on China Biotech Industry Development with the West
Most experts express confidence that U.S.- China cross-border investment and collaboration is a trend that will most likely continue. However, though Chinese investments in U.S. businesses were at a record high of $15 billion in 2016 alone, many are concerned as to whether direct investment in the U.S. biotech and life science industries will continue to grow in light of China’s recent economic pressures.
Some believe that China is still handicapped by a bureaucratic academic system, an unfriendly political environment (which may be entering an even more complicated stage with the U.S.), and inflexible immigration practices – reasons why many Chinese-born top scientists have not returned to work in China.
Competition between the Chinese sea turtles on home land is also increasing, as more and more return. This could potentially slow the migration home.
Is the ‘Sea Turtle’ Phenomenon Enough?
Some Western companies believe that the ‘sea turtle’ phenomenon, while beneficial, has not resolved all of the problems associated with outsourcing biotech to China.
Benefits undeniably include the fact that returnees have helped to bridge the large communication gap between China and the West. Their proficiency in English and Mandarin Chinese, combined with an understanding of both Western and Chinese culture, has promoted transnational partnerships.
Then there is also the fact that when many Chinese-born scientists return to China, they start new companies or enter into high level academic positions or senior positions in large multinational companies. Many maintain their Western contacts, further facilitating East-West partnerships.
Despite this, there are those that believe the country’s industry is better served when foreign educated Chinese residents build trans-national companies with a footprint in both China and in the West where they reside.
However, many expats and Western companies have expressed the need for new regulations and tax policies in order to further facilitate this process.
China’s Biotech Boom Supported by Investment, Education, and the Chinese Sea Turtles
Several major cities in China are cutting edge centers for biopharmaceutical research, testing, and production. These include Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Guangzhou.
Chinese universities now rank among the top in the world, and new graduates are providing a fresh source of scientists in the field.
The combination of Chinese scientists trained in China and those returning from abroad has created a large workforce with expertise in the biomedical sciences.
All of the above factors, along with government investments in the biotech sector, and lower development and manufacturing costs compared to the West, are helping China to position itself as a world leader in the biopharmaceutical industry.
Chinese born and educated scientists are also now taking the lead. In 2010, the biotech world took notice when a private Chinese company, Bejing Genomics Institute (BGI), purchased 128 DNA sequencers each valued at US$690,000.
This was the first time any single institution had more sequencing capacity than all the universities, research institutes and companies in the U.S. combined. In 2015, the company’s CEO, Jun Wang, set up a new artificial intelligence startup called iCarbonX, a company which attained ‘unicorn’ status in record time.
The global exchange of information between Chinese scientists and scientists in other countries has without a doubt benefited Chinese biotech ventures and innovation companies. The ‘sea turtle’ phenomenon in particular has played a big role in the increased presence of Western biotech companies in China.
While the trends are predicted to be positive in terms of East-West collaboration in the biotech field, some barriers still remain including bureaucracy, inadequate IP protection, monitoring of quality control, and remaining cultural and linguistic barriers.
‘Transculturals’ in China
China’s past continues to maintain a hold over Chinese society. Conformity, for example, has always been an important part of Chinese culture, often at the cost of innovation.
Traditional attitudes toward authority, as well as differences in business attitudes, continue to impact scientific innovation.
Despite reservations held by many Chinese-trained scientists about returnees – due to their more Westernized attitudes – one study found that these cultural differences may actually work to the advantage of those returning.
For one thing, Chinese society highly regards education, and those with degrees in higher education from various prestigious universities abroad are greatly respected.
The primary asset which returning scientists bring however, is their familiarity with Western project management and business styles, and their unique ability to bridge them with those found in China.
Then there is the fact that the challenges of overcoming language and cultural barriers outside of business are also best understood by Chinese returnees.
English Language in China
Although the presence of returnees has improved communication, English language proficiency is still less common among native Chinese speakers (the same goes in reverse with Western proficiency in Chinese languages likely just as uncommon, though increasing).
It is more common to have Japanese or Korean as a second language. That being said, this is in the process of changing as some Chinese companies offer English language programs to employees.
But for many Chinese-educated professionals working in biopharmaceutical manufacturing or research facilities, language is still a barrier. Thus, translation and interpreting services are an important requirement for Western companies actively investing in China, and visa versa.
Official regulatory documents including clinical research documents, manufacturing GMPs and laboratory SOPs, as well as any legal documents associated with partnering or collaboration must all be translated into Mandarin Chinese.
This is best done by a professional Chinese translation services providers who is able to provide necessary localization strategies using his or her knowledge of the local culture and language, as well as the biomedical sciences.
Business meetings where there is no individual present who has knowledge of both the Chinese and Western country’s language and culture, are best facilitated by a professional Chinese interpreter.
Despite challenges, as the economy continues to grow Chinese sea turtles will continue returning home. Their presence has helped biotechnology in China by fostering partnerships with the West. Chinese scientists are fast becoming prominent in biotech innovation.
Transnational partnerships between Western and Chinese biotech continues to grow at an exponential pace. Last year’s BIO International Convention showcased China’s efforts to establish themselves as important players in scientific innovation. Given China’s aging population, higher incomes, and rising demand for healthcare, it is clear why drug innovation in particular is a priority.
As China’s biotech research sector becomes more prominent, the need for more individuals – both Chinese sea turtles and Westerners broadening their cultural knowledge – working to bridge the two cultures is paramount.
- Wong, Grace. 2008. “Developing China’s homegrown biotechnology workforce” Nature Biotechnology 26:353-54. http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v26/n3/full/nbt0308-353.html
- Keeley, James and James Wilsdon. 2007. “China: the next science superpower” A Demos Publication Pamphlet. January 17. http://www.demos.co.uk/publications/atlaschina
- Gross, Amy and Andrew Connor. 2007. “Managing Chinese Returnees” Pacific Bridge. October http://www.pacificbridge.com/publication.asp?id=98
- New Economist Blog. 2006 “China: return of the ‘sea turtles’ ”. February 16. http://neweconomist.blogs.com/new_economist/2006/02/china_return_of.html
- Collins, Terry. 2008 “China’s biotech industry: an asian dragon is growing”. McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health. January 7. http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-01/pols-cbi010108.php
- Asian Scientist Magazine, 2016. “Meet China’s First Biotech Unicorn” http://www.asianscientist.com/2016/07/print/meet-chinas-first-biotech-unicorn-wang-jun-icarbonx-bgi/
- China Daily, 2016, http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2016-07/01/content_25938707.htm
- The Economist, 2017, http://www.economist.com/news/business/21718937-new-chinese-drug-colorectal-cancer-could-mark-important-milestone-chinese-pharma-firms
- CKGSB Knowledge, 2015, “Homeward Bound: Chinese Sea Turtles Return to a New Reality” http://knowledge.ckgsb.edu.cn/2015/05/05/globalization/homeward-bound-chinese-sea-turtles-return-to-a-new-reality/
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