On a dusty sidewalk outside the U.S. embassy in Beijing, just before the fall academic semester of 2002, two dozen Chinese students assembled under the nervous watch of public security officers. They hastily pulled on white t-shirts as a symbol of hope.

It was not to be the protest that some feared. The students wanted to deliver a letter to the American ambassador on behalf of hundreds of Chinese students who, like them, had been denied U.S. study visas. Several top American universities lent their support, sending a flurry of angry letters to the embassy.

Less than a year had passed since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the State Department had tightened its global immigration policies. After submitting to mandatory visa interviews, many of the Chinese students felt that the embassy had gone too far. They claimed that consular officials rejected their applications because they believed they would be unwilling to leave the United States after graduating. At the time, the consular officials were probably right.

Today, however, the tide has turned. Many Chinese graduates in the U.S. are eager to go home to weather the lingering effects of the financial crisis. Since 2008, there have been fewer appealing job opportunities overseas. China’s more liberal economy, while also suffering from the crisis, is still growing at a faster clip. And even though the average salary for a returning Chinese graduate in 2012 was little more than $16,000 a year, the chances of gaining invaluable work experience are now greater at home than abroad.

According to China’s Ministry of Education, some 800,000 Chinese have returned over the past five years, or roughly 70 percent. It is an unprecedented number, and China expects it will only increase in the coming years.

Historically, Chinese students have gone abroad mainly to study STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering or mathematics. In recent years, however, many have underestimated the cultural and language barriers to employment in a Western job market that has grown intensely competitive. Their inability to adapt has made life in North America and Europe more daunting than ever.

Chinese have been going overseas to study for nearly two centuries. After China was defeated by technically superior European powers during the Opium Wars in the nineteenth century, which forced open the nation’s seaports to European traders and saw control of Hong Kong ceded to Britain, it realized that its longstanding attitude of self-sufficiency as the “Middle Kingdom” was no longer tenable in the modern world. The Qing government quickly dispatched scholars to the West to bring back critical skills in a desperate bid to help prevent the empire from lapsing further into decline.

In 1872, 120 young Chinese went to Yale University to study mechanical engineering. They were China’s first overseas scholars, apart from a handful of Chinese Christian converts brought to Europe by the Jesuits in the eighteenth century to study theology and languages. Many more followed in their footsteps, travelling to the United States and Europe to learn engineering, physics, chemistry, mathematics, geology and social philosophy. They returned to lay the foundations of China’s modern sciences, and several would establish some of China’s best universities. A few would rise to high office, such as Tang Shaoyi, who became the first prime minister of the Republic of China.

Between 1937 and 1977, China experienced a long stretch of internal turmoil. Throughout its invasion by Japan, its civil war, several tumultuous decades under Mao Zedong and the onset of the Cold War, less than 20,000 Chinese students went abroad.

During the Cultural Revolution, when the communist party disparaged book-learning and sent academics “down to the countryside” to learn the wisdom of the proletariat, few Chinese were allowed to study overseas. Those that did were in no hurry to go home. As China began opening up to the world again in the late 1970s, after decades of self-imposed isolation, more Chinese went out to learn advanced skills. They helped to modernize and strengthen China’s economy as scientists, engineers, economists, and other technocrats. In the early 1990s, Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s market reforms—he had studied in France—acknowledged the importance of overseas Chinese to the nation’s future and urged more to return to their homeland in his famous “Southern Tour” speech.

By the mid 1990s returning Chinese students and professionals had come to be known as hai gui, or sea turtles, people who return home after crossing the sea to grow up. Once back in China, those with degrees from prestigious foreign universities commanded a premium over local salaries and quickly climbed to prominent positions in industry and government. A boon for China’s economic growth, bringing new ideas and experience to a nation struggling to reform and develop, they became China’s new gold-collar workers.

Since 1978, an estimated 2.6 million Chinese have gone overseas to study. In 1995 only around 6,000 returned, but today between 400,000 and 600,000 return each year.

The problem now is that many of those returning are not what China needs, as a nation, to define a new phase of economic transformation. In the past only a select few went abroad—the highest achievers—and their success after returning from carefully chosen programs was almost preordained.

Today, a foreign education is within reach of China’s burgeoning middle class. More and more Chinese parents send their children to easily accessible schools in the United States, believing that they can replicate the success of former hai gui. A growing number return with business degrees, however, hoping to cash in on a dwindling export market for low-value-added goods or to ride the tide of real-estate speculation. Struggling to find jobs, they are called hai dai, or seaweed.

China is no longer looking to the West for basic business models. It has, for the most part, already made the transition to a market economy and established global marketing and distribution networks. National development goals place a new emphasis on advanced science and technology as China’s industry recognizes that it must, of necessity, lift itself up the value chain to remain globally competitive.

In 2008 the Chinese government launched an incentive scheme to lure back Chinese scientific and technology-related entrepreneurial talent from foreign countries. Dubbed “One Thousand Talents,” the program offers large cash incentives, housing assistance, and tax-free education for children. It was supposed to run for 10 years, until 2018, and repatriate 2,000 of the best Chinese minds to spur innovation in a country which has, for the past three decades, based its economic growth on a massive pool of low-cost labour.

Under the scheme, universities and local governments were encouraged to draw up wish-lists of candidates, and they were offered rewards of up to $2 million for recruiting them. After only five years, the program has met with equivocal success. While it has already exceeded its quota, it appears to have attracted more business graduates than the core STEM talent it sought.

Heavy pollution, a poor healthcare system, and rampant government corruption have dampened any appeal to patriotism the program might have otherwise evoked. Many of the STEM graduates who were its prime targets now hold tenure-track positions at prestigious American universities, where salaries and living conditions are better.

There is no clear view of what the future might hold for China’s competitive prospects over the short term, but many believe that the nation will, over time, regain its former prestige as an innovator. After all, China has not always been a borrower of science and technology. Only two hundred years ago it was extolled in the West as an exemplar of innovation for inventions such as the compass, gunpowder, papermaking, and printing.

This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's January/February 2014 print edition.

But it’s difficult to think about value when we have no buoy for understanding it outside our traditional lenses: for example, our time, our job, and what others tell us they are worth in cash. This, largely, is the world’s paradigm for value so far. But understanding what value really means changes everything—and will be at the center of the decentralized revolution in global coordination that will unfold over the next decade. So, where do we begin?

Let’s start with gold.

Gold is an inherent value. When backing a market, gold allows us to grow a balanced economy well into the trillions. But why does it allow for massive stable markets to form around it? It is gold's permanence that creates stability. We understand that gold will always have value, because it is inherent in all of us, not just in one part of the world, but everywhere, not just today, but tomorrow and for the long haul.

In the 1930s when the gold standard was removed, we learned that the U.S. dollar didn’t need gold to back its economy to flourish. We learned that it was just a symbol for U.S. citizens to decentralize their coordination around the United States economy.

It turns out, common agreement is a philosophy for building shared economy.

And so it seems inherent value is a marker for us to begin exploring what the future could look like—a future beyond gold and the existing realm of credit. And so what else has inherent value? Is education as valuable as gold? What about healthcare? What about a vote that can’t be tampered with? What about an ID that can’t be stolen or erased? What about access to nutrition or clean water? You will find value everywhere you look.

It turns out, we’ve already done the legwork necessary to uncover the most elemental inherent values: The Sustainable Development Goals are commitments grown out of the drive to bring to life basic tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the closest possible social contract we have to a global, common agreement.

We’ve already agreed, as a global community, to ensure inclusive and equitable access to quality education. We’ve already agreed to empower all women and girls, to ensure pure and clean water access for all, to promote health at all stages of life, and to end hunger.

We’ve already agreed.

Our agreements are grounded in deep value centers that are globally shared, but undervalued and unfulfilled. The reason for this is our inability to quantify intangible value. All of these rich, inherent values are still nebulous and fragmented in implementation—largely existing as ideals and blueprints for deep, globally shared common agreement. That is, we all agree education, health, and equality have value, but we lack common units for understanding who and who is not contributing value—leaving us to fumble in our own, uncoordinated siloes as we chase the phantoms of impact. In essence, we lack common currencies for our common agreements.

Now we find ourselves at the nexus of the real paradigm of Blockchain, allowing us to fuse economics with inherent value by proving the participation of some great human effort, then quantifying the impact of that effort in unforgeable and decentralized ledgers. It allows us to build economic models for tomorrow, that create wholly new markets and economies for and around each of the richest of human endeavors.

In late 2017 at the height of the Bitcoin bubble, without individual coordination, planning, or the help of institutions, almost $1 trillion was infused into blockchain markets. This is remarkable, and the revolution has only just begun. When you realize that Blockchain is in a similar stage of development as the internet pre-AOL, you will see a glimpse of the global transformation to come.

Only twice in the information age have we had such a paradigm shift in global infrastructure reform—the computer and the internet. While the computer taught us how to store and process data, the Internet built off that ability and furthered the conversation by teaching us how to transfer that information. Blockchain takes another massive step forward—it builds off the internet, adding to the story of information storage and transfer—but, it teaches us a new, priceless and not yet understood skill: how to transfer value.

This third wave kicked off with a rough start—as happens with the birth of new technologies and their corresponding liberties. Blockchain has, thus far, been totally unregulated. Many, doubtless, have taken advantage. A young child, stretching their arms for the first couple times might knock over a cookie jar or two. Eventually, however, they learn to use their faculties—for evil or for good. As such, while it’s wise to be skeptical at this phase in blockchain’s evolution, it’s important not to be blind to its remarkable implications in a post-regulated world, so that we may wield its faculties like a surgeon’s scalpel—not for evil or snake-oil sales, but for the creation of more good, for the flourishing of commonwealth.

But what of the volatility in blockchain markets? People agree Bitcoin has value, but they don’t understand why they are in agreement, and so cryptomarkets fluctuate violently.  Stable blockchain economies will require new symbolic gold standards that clearly articulate why someone would agree to support each market, to anchor common agreement with stability. The more globally shared these new value standards, the better.

Is education more valuable than gold? What about healthcare or nutrition or clean water?

We set out in 2018 to prove a hypothesis—we believe that if you back a cryptocurrency economy with a globally agreed upon inherent value like education, you can solve for volatility and stabilize a mature long lasting cryptomarket that awards everyone who adds value to that market in a decentralized way without the friction of individual partnerships.

What if education was a new gold standard?

And what if this new Learning Economy had protocols to award everyone who is helping to steward the growth of global education?

Education is a mountain. Everyone takes a different path to the top. Blockchain allows us to measure all of those unique learning pathways, online and in classrooms, into immutable blockchain Learning Ledgers.

By quantifying the true value of education, a whole economy can be built around it to pay students to learn, educators to create substantive courses, and stewards to help the Learning Economy grow. It was designed to provide a decentralized way for everyone adding value to global education to coordinate around the commonwealth without the friction of individual partnerships. Imagine the same for healthcare, nutrition, and our environment?

Imagine a world where we can pay refugees to learn languages as they find themselves in foreign lands, a world where we can pay those laid off by the tide of automation to retrain themselves for the new economy, a world where we can pay the next generation to prepare themselves for the unsolved problems of tomorrow.

Imagine new commonwealth economies that alleviate the global burdens of poverty, disease, hunger, inequality, ignorance, toxic water, and joblessness. Commonwealths that orbit inherent values, upheld by immutable blockchain protocols that reward anyone in the ecosystem stewarding the economy—whether that means feeding the hungry, providing aid for the global poor, delivering mosquito nets in malaria-ridden areas, or developing transformative technologies that can provide a Harvard-class education to anyone in the world willing to learn.

These worlds are not out of reach—we are only now opening our eyes to the horizons of blockchain, decentralized coordination, and new gold standards. Even though coordination is the last of the seventeen sustainable development goals, when solved, its tide will lift for the rest—a much-needed rocket fuel for global prosperity.

“Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair.”  —George Washington
Paul Nash
Toronto-based Correspondent Paul Nash is a frequent China commentator and serves as a Senior Contributing Editor at Diplomatic Courier.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.