Universities in China and overseas are unexpectedly benefiting from China’s crackdown on technology companies in recent months, with some top-level artificial intelligence (AI) and other high-end tech talent returning to academia as the sector shrinks and salaries are reined in.
China is in the throes of a regulatory crackdown on its previously untouchable tech giants, clamping down on what is seen as their market-distorting practices.
In April 2021, e-commerce giant Alibaba Group froze pay for senior executives while giving junior staff bigger salary increases at a time when Alibaba was a focus of the government crackdown fuelled by government concern about their market dominance and ability to sway public opinion.
Last year, Alibaba was fined a record US$2.75 billion for alleged market competition violations. Dozens of other firms have been fined or warned, dramatically affecting stock prices and profits.
Beijing has also put pressure on tech companies to realign their priorities with the government’s interests, which include a push for technological self-reliance in strategic areas rather than consumer-driven technologies.
The prolonged crackdown, which has lasted months, and which shows no signs of abating as another round of fines was levied on a number of companies, including Alibaba and Tencent this month, has led to a steady drain of top talent returning to academic posts.
Many of them had left academia, including prestigious jobs in overseas universities, to join the vibrant Chinese tech sector in the past decade. One academic in Shanghai specialising in computer science described the current situation as a “bonanza for universities”.
Alibaba, with its headquarters in the east coast city of Hangzhou, and gaming and social media titan Tencent, with headquarters in Shenzhen, are China’s top private company spenders on R&D and have huge pools of scientific, computing and engineering talent.
Some high-profile departures have captured headlines, including Qi Yuan, the former vice president and chief scientist for artificial intelligence at Alibaba’s online payment company Ant group, who returned to academia at the end of 2021 as dean of the Institute of Artificial Intelligence Innovation at Fudan University, Shanghai.
Qi has a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was an associate professor of computer science and statistics at Purdue University in the United States before joining Ant Group in 2014, one of the country’s high-profile ‘returnees’ from the West.
Li Lei, the director of ByteDance’s AI Lab in Beijing, left in August 2021 for a post as an assistant professor at the University of California Santa Barbara’s computer science department. Li, who has a PhD from Carnegie Mellon in the US, is considered to be a major name in natural language processing research and is an expert in AI and data mining.
ByteDance owns video platform TikTok and other AI-driven apps. Its AI lab is responsible for studying and building algorithms that mine knowledge and learn from all kinds of data.
Even before the regulatory crackdown got into full swing in early 2021, another ByteDance scientist, Ma Weiying, resigned from his vice-president position in 2020 to take up a professorship at Beijing’s Tsinghua University institute of Advanced Industrial Research, which focuses on autonomous driving, the Internet of Things and neuromorphic computing.
In July 2020, AI giant Megvii, which specialises in image recognition, also lost Wei Xiushen, the founding director of Megvii’s research institute in Nanjing city, to Nanjing University of Science and Technology.
In August 2021, the Central Propaganda Department and five other departments, including the ministry of culture and associations guiding writers, artists and other content producers released recommendations to stop “dissemination of incorrect” content and to correct “political” problems caused by internet companies’ algorithms. The move caused significant haemorrhaging of talent from major content platforms like TikTok and video platform iQIYI.
As part of this drive to align online content to the party’s agenda and restrict the influence of private capital and technology, new government rules on algorithms which recommend what users read, watch or buy online and which can shape trends and spark online discussions or ‘social mobilisation’ were released this month and will take effect on 1 March, curtailing some recommendations to customers and reducing ‘discrimination’ against certain parts of the population, such as the elderly.
But analysts say it eats into the AI-driven business model of the major platforms such as ByteDance’s TikTok and e-commerce giants and could lead to radical realignments and job losses at these companies.
“What motivates top talent to stay in a business is to do interesting things and make a lot of money and the likelihood that you’re going to make a lot of money in Alibaba or Tencent has just been severely curtailed because these new regulations have put in a lot of costly requirements,” said Rogier Creemers, assistant professor in modern Chinese studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands and an expert on China’s digital technology policies.
“If you’re a data engineer, there’s going to be a lot more scrutiny of your work and more and more to comply with, with the likelihood that that law will be implemented and enforced fairly strictly.
“Then you’ve got universities funded tremendously by the central government to do digital innovation research,” which could offer “a cushy appointment with senior-level professorial titles, their own research lab, a team, a fairly decent salary – not in comparison with a private-sector salary, but they’re not going to be poor – and allow them to consult with private industry,” Creemers told University World News.
While these are high-profile senior departures with name recognition in China, analysts say many others with PhDs from top institutions in China and abroad and specialist knowledge in AI are returning to university jobs.
Fudan University has reportedly attracted a large number, including Shang Li, who joined Fudan last year as a doctoral supervisor. He previously served as vice president of Intel China Research Institute after working in US universities, including the University of Colorado at Boulder after obtaining a PhD from Princeton.
Chai Hongfeng, a former director of China UnionPay, a Shanghai-based financial services company, also recently joined the school of computer sciences at Fudan. Chinese search engine giant Baidu’s vice president, Zhang Yaqin, also recently jumped ship to join Tsinghua University, Beijing.
Universities, long used to losing top professors to industry, will see a boost in the quality of research and teaching as top talent returns, according to analysts.
“These are very experienced executives who are at the cutting edge of certain technologies. China’s challenge is going to be to train an entire generation of people who can work in these industries. So, it does make sense that some of these very senior people would take on a role to oversee research and also the development of talent,” said Todd Maurer, China expert and CEO of Los Angeles-based Edunomix which analyses links between education and knowledge industries and the economy.
Greater freedom to do research
The regulatory crackdown, which has narrowed the scope for many companies’ research departments, may have been the ‘last straw’ for many private-sector scientists who found they had less scope to pursue their own research interests as these companies matured. Academia provides greater freedom to carry out research.
“Some of them [universities] have a lot of resources. So the combination of academic prestige and doing something on a national level for the country would be attractive to these people,” said Maurer. “They will not just be doing basic research but more applied research, working directly with some enterprises.”
“Those alliances are going to be very important between universities and some of these new industries that the government wants to get behind – as part of the national plan there will be more integration between universities and some of these new commercial enterprises, which has also happened in the past,” according to Maurer.
Funding for research in areas pertaining to the digital economy will be boosted under China’s 14th Five-Year Plan on the digital economy released publicly by China’s State Council or cabinet this week, though it is dated 14 December.
The broadbrush plan, aimed at boosting China’s global competitiveness in this area, includes enhancing basic research capabilities in ‘strategic areas’ such as sensors, quantum information, communications, integrated circuits, key software, big data, artificial intelligence, blockchain and new materials.
China will also seek to improve self-sufficiency in “basic hardware and software, core electronic components, key basic materials and production equipment”, the document says.
Anna Puglisi, director of the biotech programme and senior research fellow at the Georgetown Centre for Emerging Technologies at Georgetown University, Washington DC, told University World News that it was too early to say how this would affect research in tech companies.
The assumption is that, with the principles and development of algorithms and systems, “the basic stuff will happen at universities and the more applied stuff will happen in the companies, whereas, in China, there is a blurring of those lines. I would venture to say if it’s something the Chinese government thinks of as a priority, then it will still receive funding and be incentivised,” she said.
But, whether the crackdown on companies and moves to universities for research “will have an impact on their [companies’] ability to do research and attract talent, is still too early to tell,” she added.
No mass exodus
Nonetheless, Maurer said: “I don’t think there is going to be a mass exodus out of the private tech sector into universities,” particularly among younger graduates.
“While I wouldn’t be surprised to see a large reorientation back into academia, I don’t think academia has sufficient capacity to bring back all these people even if they wanted to go there,” he added.
Pointing to the huge amount of venture capital circulating in China, Maurer noted “the money is going into new areas which can easily hire people coming out of other sectors. So, a data scientist might go to a new biotech firm – there will be a rotation of talent into other sectors, a brain circulation.”
The regulatory crackdown is, in part, motivated by the government’s desire for a different kind of technology. Rather than the consumer-focused tech in which the Alibaba, Tencent and online shopping company Meituan excel, according to Creemers.
“Beijing wants more hard tech, such as semiconductors, new materials, new energy, and aeronautics. That’s where a lot of innovation is going to come from in China.”
The result is that, despite a tense political and regulatory environment, tech giants are still jockeying for the best new talent emerging from the country’s universities. Companies such as Alibaba and ByteDance each have more than 100,000 employees, with the average age in the 27- to 31-year-old range. In a statement in July, Alibaba called its graduate recruitment drive for 2022 its largest ever.
Aggressive graduate recruitment drives are also a response to the government’s call to increase employment among new graduates as the pandemic decimates the jobs outlook.
Creemers cautioned: “We certainly shouldn’t equate what is happening with Alibaba and Tencent with the entire Chinese digital sector.” The digital economy was 38% of the country’s GDP in 2020.
“In tech, yes, jobs are lost but I’m not too worried about the future of Chinese graduates. I think China’s going to have a shortage of well-educated people rather than a surfeit.”