China: An Image Adjustment

June 17, 2011 – 8:37 pm | By Tom Wall | No comments yet

I’m an American baby boomer. For me – and I suspect many others of my generation – China’s image has not been the best. In my mental collage, fascination with Chinese culture and invention is offset by wariness of China’s political system and potential power.

Some parts of the collage: as a boy, listening to stories told by a Korean War vet uncle and neighbors about hand-to-hand fighting with young Chinese soldiers wearing tennis shoes on their frozen feet at Chosin Reservoir; as a teen, accounts of Mao Zedong’s chaotic Cultural Revolution, its purges and Red Guards; in middle age, the visual of a man standing in front of a column of tanks the morning after protestors were cleared from Tiananmen Square.

As recently as a decade ago, my wife and daughter returned from a week visiting friends in Shanghai and Beijing with tales of wonder (cosmopolitan Shanghai, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall) and tales of caution (poor air, bad water, strange food.) Interesting place to visit, maybe; but wouldn’t want to live there.

But, as the overnight adoption of the Internet should have taught me, things can change really fast these days. And so it is with my image of China.

As I did research and interviews recently for a BioWorld Today series on the state of China’s biotech industry called Biotech’s Emerging Giant, I was intrigued by the “sea turtle” phenomenon – thousands of Chinese scientists with advanced education and experience in the West returning home to teach and advance high-value enterprises, among them biotechnology. I wondered why anyone with advanced degrees from some of America’s best universities, good jobs with U.S. pharmas and biotechs, and prospects for a comfortable life, would willingly swap life in the U.S. for China?

People like sea turtle George Chen – an MD who has an MBA from University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, post-grad medical training at New York Medical College and a tour with Eli Lilly and Co. and was recently named chief medical officer for Beijing-based biotech start-up BeiGene Ltd. ‑ had the answer: opportunity.

Chen’s opportunity list: China has huge unmet medical needs coupled with a rapidly expanding elderly population; it needs effective, affordable medicines for diseases prevalent or unique to China; government-mandated healthcare reform and investment are creating life-sciences opportunities; rapid urbanization and industrialization are fueling economic expansion; there is rapid growth in the life-science talent pool, R&D funding and enabling infrastructure; there are favorable government policies and financial support; and, multinational pharmas are externalizing therapeutics R&D.

Some estimate that there are as many as 80,000 sea turtle scientists like Chen, give or take an advanced degree. Those I interviewed said that returning to China was a chance to do better work, faster work, fulfill a dream and take advantage of an opportunity.

The fact that the sea turtles view China, and not the U.S., as their preferred land of opportunity, is not lost on U.S. biotech executives like Acorda Therapeutics Inc. founder and CEO Ron Cohen and Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc. founder and director Joshua Boger, who have visited China this year and, in Boger’s case, has a business partnership there.

Both were struck by the investment, optimism, speed, quality, creativity and commitment they saw – in biotech and in general – while there. Cohen said his impression was “shock and awe,” adding that the contrast with a U.S. grappling with economic, educational and infrastructure challenges was scary.

So, I’ve adjusted my image of China, as other Americans undoubtedly have.

But maybe America’s image of China will be less important, going forward, than China’s image of America.

By Tom Wall, BioWorld Today Staff Writer

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