by Yuge Ma & Jiming Zhu

Making the most of Chinese talent on the global stage

Thanks to globalization and China’s growing economy, a group of young Chinese young thinkers and non-state organizations with international perspectives and a strong dedication to global affairs has begun to emerge. What is the best way to support and encourage such talented individuals, so that they can help China become a more constructive and smarter stakeholder in the international community, and at the same time, allow it to achieve its growing interests in global governance?

A glance at Chinese talent in global governance

China’s economic rise has been accompanied by growing aspirations in global governance. There has been a considerable increase in China’s share of contributions and voting rights in various international organizations, particularly during the last ten years. For example, China tripled its contribution to the UN’s regular budget from 0.97% of GDP in 1999 to 3.189% in 2010; in 2012, China secured 6.39% of the voting rights in the World Bank, up from only 2.77% before 2009; China also offered US$43bn to the IMF in 2012 and will soon become the third largest contributing member.

At the same time, China has been actively promoting new initiatives – such as BRICS, APEC and the recently proposed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank – to address new challenges in global affairs.

However, when we look at China’s participation in global governance from the perspective of human resources, the picture is less cheerful. The proportion of Chinese nationals in international organizations hardly matches China’s dramatically rising share of contributions to these organizations, let alone the scale of its economy in the world.

It’s true that in recent years we have seen many more Chinese faces among the senior officials in some prestigious international organizations, including Dr Justin Yifu Lin, former chief economist of the World Bank, Dr Zhu Min, the deputy managing director of the IMF, Dr Margaret Chan, the director-general of WHO and Dr Jin-Yong Cai, chief executive of the International Finance Corporation.

Apart from their own longstanding reputations in academic and policy circles, their success in these international organizations is strongly backed by the Chinese government. Clearly, China has realized that talent is just as important as finance in global governance.

However, behind those shining names at the very top, Chinese nationals are poorly represented in various global governance institutions – from development, finance, energy, health, and climate change to economic organizations alike – in the middle and junior levels. Nonetheless, those at middle and junior level are often the actual practitioners in many fields of international affairs. Their knowledge and skills in global governance gained from years of experience and internationally nurtured thinking are precious resources for a country that is trying to strengthen its voice and capacity in global affairs.

Without a well-structured combination of junior, middle and top-level personnel, it will undoubtedly be difficult for China to fulfill its potential in global governance and to facilitate mutual understanding and collaboration with the rest of the world.

China’s Development Research Center of the State Council, one of the most influential governmental think tanks, published its reform proposal in the run-up to the Key Party Meeting in November 2013. The proposal, which was referred to by media and the public as the ‘383 Plan’, was primarily aimed at restructuring the relationship between government and the market.

Within this comprehensive and ambitious reform package, global governance is mentioned at the end of the proposal. In order to strengthen China’s capacity in global economic governance, the proposal suggested reforming personnel management policies in foreign affairs and establishing a mutual flow of talent between the Chinese government and international organizations.

In addition, it recommended a mechanism to facilitate think tank participation in foreign economic policymaking. It highlighted China’s growing realization that, faced with the growing and pluralizing challenges of global governance, and multi-polarizing global geopolitics at the same time, it is vital and urgent to adjust its policies towards global affairs.

There are two main approaches proposed by the proposal towards global governance: institutionalizing a mutual talent flow between the Chinese government and international organizations; and facilitating think tank participation in global economic governance. Both are aimed at a more integrated participation in global affairs.

These two reform approaches, however, remain under strict government control: the talent flow mainly involves government officials being appointed to various international organizations. As may be expected, China’s influential think tanks are generally affiliated with the government or government funded.

Sadly, the institutional nature of China’s cadre system excludes, to a significant extent, a rich talent pool of Chinese professionals who have wide international experience and strong dedication to global affairs. The problem is that traditionally they do not belong to the cadre system. This group of talented people has emerged only within the past 20 years.

Each year, China sends out more than 300,000 students overseas, with the number reaching almost 400,000 in 2012. More Chinese students are receiving higher education from the best universities in the world than ever before. At Harvard, for example, there were 686 Chinese students in November 2012 according to the university’s official statistics; at Oxford, around 800 Chinese students account for the second largest foreign student group, second only to the US, with approximately 1,200 students.

Even in emerging countries, such as India, Russia, South Africa and Brazil the number of Chinese students has been steadily growing. Meanwhile, more and more high-quality applications for internships and junior positions from Chinese nationals are received each year by international bodies such as the World Bank, UN, IMF, WTO, WHO, IEA, etc. An increasingly large number of Chinese young professionals are invited to join multilateral discussions on various aspects of global governance.

However, without opening up the job opportunities to non-cadre (ie non-party) professionals, it is difficult for these young talented people to join the system that is effectively supported by the government. The lack of openness in talent management poses a serious threat to China’s efforts to achieve more integrated participation in global governance. More inclusive and practical mechanisms still need to be developed.


Until now, China’s participation in global governance has mainly been through government agencies and various government-funded organizations. However, what is required is a variety of forms of participation to address various global problems of different scales. Non-state players, such as NGOs, think tanks, multinational corporations, sub-national organizations, multinational dialogues, cross-national associations and even influential individuals have emerged as important negotiators, lobbyists, educators, coordinators or even agenda-setters, policymakers, as well as agents of policy implementation and evaluation.

Since pluralism in global governance is unavoidable, China should decentralize both channels of policymaking, policy implementation as well as talent management in global governance. That will allow capable and experienced non-state organizations and individuals to be integrated into the policy process, and will support and encourage bottom-up participation in global affairs.

China should also provide sufficient resources to support the talent and organizations in global governance. For example, subsidies could be granted to students and young professionals working as interns or short-contract staff (which is very common nowadays) in international organizations, such as the World Bank and UNICEF, given that these kinds of jobs are underpaid or even completely voluntary, but are important channels of learning, networking and experience-building for higher positions. Without financial support or contribution from Chinese government, it is discouraging and arduous for qualified Chinese talents to apply for these positions and in some cases these positions are even not open to Chinese applicants.

China could also learn from the many OECD countries which have policies to support their citizens in the UN system, such as funding young interns and junior professionals, providing career development service and training, and maintaining their citizens’ welfare while they work abroad.

At the same time, more research initiatives on global governance and international affairs could further China’s understanding of the changing landscape of global governance, and therefore better equip China with experience in policymaking. In recent years, this has begun to happen but the limited funding largely goes to governmental think tanks and institutions. More financial and non-financial resources (such as publications and various forms of public outreach) need to be mobilized in order to support both top-down and bottom-up research-related initiatives.

The role of the international community

A more integrated participation by China in global governance is in the interests of the international community as well, so in addition to China’s own reform initiatives, the international community could also help China to achieve this goal by sharing knowledge and experience and by cooperating in research, dialogue, and projects.

There is a tendency among international communities to accept that collaborating with governmental institutions is the most efficient way of operating in China. Now, as China aims at a more integrated participation in global governance, the international community should also pay attention to the various emerging players on this front. By doing so, China and the world could deepen their understanding of each other, which will in return, create the right conditions for a more integrated and peaceful international order.

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