In the 1990s, Jeffrey S. Lehman, then the dean of the University of Michigan Law School, began visiting Beijing to help open a program for members of his faculty to teach at Peking University’s law school during the summer.
Given China’s rising influence, he thought it would be beneficial for his colleagues to learn about legal education in China at one of the country’s most prestigious institutions.
But Mr. Lehman, who is also a former president of Cornell University, did not expect to work for a Chinese university himself.
“I would have given long, long odds against that possibility,” he said.
In 2007, the leaders of Peking University, with whom he had developed strong relationships over the years, asked him to help establish a school teaching American law to Chinese students on their Shenzhen campus. That summer he became the chancellor and founding dean of the school, called the Peking University School of Transnational Law.
“It’s been deeply gratifying,” Mr. Lehman said of his Chinese experience.
The number of foreigners working at the law school has increased since it was established, with Americans, Germans, British and South Korean academics. Of the nine permanent faculty, seven are foreigners.
The rise in foreign academics at the law school reflects a broader trend. As institutions in Western countries continue to suffer from budget cuts, academics looking for opportunities farther afield are finding that China is welcoming foreign professors with open arms.
Individual Chinese universities have been increasingly recruiting Western academics in recent years, but the Chinese government is also enticing foreigners with a new program that offers a range of incentives.
“We are going to see more foreign professors coming to China,” said Wang Huiyao, director general of the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing.
Late last year, the Chinese government started the Thousand Foreign Experts program, which is designed to attract up to 1,000 foreign academics and entrepreneurs over the next 10 years to help improve research and innovation.
It has already attracted more than 200 applicants from countries like the United States, Japan and Germany, according to a report in February by Xinhua, China’s official news agency.
The program is an extension of the Thousand Talent program, which started in 2008 as a way to attract experts, academics and entrepreneurs to China.
While 1,600 experts — more than half of them academics — came to China under that program, most were Chinese-born, said Mr. Wang, an adviser to the government on its talent policy.
Mr. Wang said the government wanted to further lift its intake of overseas experts, which led to the establishment of the latest program specifically aimed at foreigners.
Under the new program, successful candidates receive a subsidy of up to one million renminbi, or nearly $160,000, and scientific researchers can receive a research allowance worth three million to five million renminbi.
Mr. Wang said the program, run by the State Administration of Foreign Expert Affairs in Beijing, aimed to attract academics to tenured professor positions.
He said the program was targeted at “people who have been recognized in the West, those who have a good track record.”
Mr. Wang said that while there were already many foreigners working in Chinese universities, particularly top-tier schools like Peking University and Tsinghua University, he expected the new government program would accelerate the number of foreigners joining other Chinese schools.
“They are sending a big signal to all universities in China that they actively support this,” Mr. Wang said.
With funding harder to come by in many Western countries, China’s impressive investment in research and development is proving a draw for many Western researchers. And with China itself becoming a rapidly growing field of research for scholars, academics like Marc Idelson are moving there to further their research.
Mr. Idelson, who is half French and half British, joined Peking University’s HSBC Business School in Shenzhen last August as an assistant professor after an interview with a Peking representative at a business conference in Canada in 2010.
Mr. Idelson, who previously worked at the Essec Business School in Paris, joined the university on a tenure track where academics are expected to receive tenure in six years.
Mr. Idelson, whose wife is Chinese, had not set his sights specifically on China and said he was willing to move anywhere, as long as the job and location met his criteria.
“The first criteria was strategic alignment,” he said. “Would this job enable me to further my research? The second criteria was, would I integrate socially? And the third was financially, what was the package like?”
The position at Peking University ticked all the boxes, he said.
Li Jun, an assistant professor at the Department of International Education and Lifelong Learning at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, said mainland Chinese universities were now well-funded by the government and able to offer foreigners lucrative packages.
He said China wanted to attract more foreign academics to help lift its international competitiveness.
At the institutional level, Chinese universities were increasingly competing with one another to improve their status and employing foreigners helped their reputations, he said.
“They can use that to recruit students and to get recognition from the public,” Mr. Li said, adding that top foreign academics also helped Chinese universities attract more research funding and made it easier for them to connect with the international academic community.
“Their papers will be written in English, which is a big barrier to the local academics,” he said. “In terms of international recognition of scholars, that will be a big help for the universities.”
Mr. Li, who said that Chinese universities preferred academics from highly developed Western countries, especially the United States and Canada, said the schools recruited foreigners by advertising on higher education Web sites, using their consulates to help target particular academics and encouraged Chinese academics to use their personal connections with foreigners to reach out to them.
Alex Katsomitros, a research analyst at the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education in London, said Chinese institutions would most likely be more interested in attracting academics who specialized in the so-called Stem subjects — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — which lift economic growth through innovation and are seen as “politically neutral.”
“Social science and humanities academics are less willing to move to China for obvious reasons,” he said in an e-mail.
Mr. Katsomitros cited the case of the French virologist Luc Montagnier, who received the Nobel Prize in 2008 for his discovery of H.I.V. and joined Shanghai Jiao Tong University in 2010, where he set up a research institute.
In an interview with the journal Science in 2010, Mr. Montagnier, then 78, explained China’s appeal. He described how he was no longer able to work at a public institute in France because of the country’s retirement laws, and spoke of the “intellectual terror” that made it difficult to obtain funding for research related to homeopathy in France.
Mr. Katsomitros said Chinese universities may be “mainly interested in the status and publicity” such “academia superstars” bring, rather than the results of their research.
Nevertheless, he says that Western institutions should not fret about losing academics to China.
“In general, the flee of academics might have been an issue of concern in the past, but it shouldn’t be that worrying today, as higher education and academic research are going through a phase of rapid internationalization,” he said. “The fact that academics go to China for a couple of years doesn’t mean they have defected. On the contrary, they might bring back home valuable knowledge and help their home countries understand China better.”