A growing proportion of wealthy and middle-class Chinese are planning to leave the country, citing the government’s strict zero-COVID policy and a perceived return to the Mao-era command economy under leader Xi Jinping, according to online data and Chinese nationals experience of the phenomenon.
The WeChat index, which publishes search statistics from the social media giant, reported around 38.3 million searches for the keyword “emigration” as of Thursday.
While the hashtag #emigration was unblocked on Weibo Thursday, it had seen tens of thousands of views, with much of the content focusing on the downsides of living abroad, suggesting some sort of intervention by the ruling Communist Party’s “public”. “opinion management” system.
At its peak, searches for the keyword “emigration” hit 70 million several times during the lockdown in Shanghai between March and May, and 130 million immediately thereafter. The same keyword also peaked in the Toutiao Index, Google Trends and 360 Trends between April and the end of June 2022.
Two highly educated Chinese citizens told RFA in recent interviews that they and their friends are either leaving or planning to leave soon given the grueling zero-COVID program of ongoing lockdowns, mandatory mass testing and tracking via the Health Code smartphone app Claims are affecting people’s mental and physical health, not to mention their livelihoods and the economy at large.
Gao, a Shanghai-based finance executive who asked that his full name be withheld for fear of reprisals, said he’s been watching YouTube videos in Mandarin of advisors promising to offer Chinese nationals a better life – in the Pacific nation of Vanuatu, in Moldova, even in war-torn Ukraine — in short, everywhere except China.
The phenomenon even has its own codename, with a Chinese character playing the English word “run.”
“I strongly and strongly encourage everyone to run!” raves an immigration consultant in a YouTube video viewed by RFA.
“Today I’ll show you how easy it is to emigrate to the USA,” promises the YouTuber. “It is very likely that after watching this video you will start rethinking your life and making plans.”
“All hope for the future lost”
Gao, who recorded a number of such videos before speaking to RFA, said he has been looking for another place to live for some time.
“The current situation doesn’t look very good,” he told RFA. “Since the 20th party congress [last month]everyone has lost all hope for the future.”
“Everyone has looked at their ideas, their values, their politics, the severity of the zero-COVID policy, the return to command and the brutal repression [of dissent]and come to their own conclusions,” Gao said, adding that he and his high-earning friends all share the same view.
“The fact that we’re facing economic collapse – there’s nothing worth going on for anymore,” he said. “Everyone plans their future risk-aversely, because the risks associated with staying are increasing.”
The night market in Chiang Mai, Thailand. A Chinese activist visited a Chinese émigré arts and culture community in the city. “There’s a lot of cultural types that gathered there… and they don’t come back,” she says. Photo credit: AFP
Chinese social activist He Peirong, who has nearly 40,000 followers on Twitter, said she had just left for Japan.
“I’d been preparing to leave the country since July, but I haven’t let anyone on WeChat know I’m leaving,” she told RFA. “I spent more than 10,000 yuan to renovate my house and I went halfway.”
“China has triggered a wave of immigration,” she said. “Many people are now making their way to live in Japan, Europe and the United States. Where people go depends on their economic situation.”
She said she also attended a Chinese émigré arts and culture community in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
“We ate, drank and performed together every day; everyone was very happy,” she said. “There’s a lot of cultural types that gathered there… and they’re not coming back.”
Before her departure, He Peirong had been a vocal critic of the ruling Chinese Communist Party and had been instrumental in the daring escape from house arrest and subsequent escape of blind Shandong activist Chen Guangcheng.
She later brought supplies to Wuhan to support citizen journalists covering the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
She said she decided to leave China after being banned from the train ticket system because of poor “social credit”.
“In the fall of 2018, I was blacklisted by the Department of Railways, so I filed a lawsuit against them,” she told RFA.
Long waiting lists
Currently, there are very long waiting lists for people who want to emigrate to Europe, United States, Canada or Australia, and investment visa prices in these countries are also quite high.
Southeast Asian countries are considered too risky due to their close ties with China and their willingness to deport Chinese nationals wanted home by the authorities.
Rights groups say China is currently conducting illegal transnational police operations across five continents targeting overseas Chinese to harass them, threaten their families at home and use “persuasion techniques” to get them to return, according to a recent report.
Hong Kong, itself gripped by a city-wide crackdown on national security and a mass emigration wave following the 2019 protest movement, is also no longer a safe springboard for overseas residency, Gao said.
Gao is now looking to Ukraine, where he already has a boyfriend.
“Ukraine is war-torn at the moment, but it won’t be that way for long…there is all kinds of hope and vitality in the future of this country,” he said. “I have a friend who lives in the westernmost part of the country where there is no fighting and they live quite peacefully.”
“People have told me that you can apply for a business visa in Ukraine, start a small business, and then … go and settle there before pursuing other options,” Gao said.
Otherwise, Gao also looks at neighboring Moldova, where visa processing times are relatively short. He said he wanted to leave China as soon as possible.
A boy climbs onto a destroyed Russian tank during an open-air exhibition of destroyed military vehicles near the golden-domed monastery of St. Michael in Kyiv October 16, 2022 during the invasion. Photo credit: AFP
The exodus of China’s middle class has led to a plethora of immigration advice.
An employee who answered the phone at one such consulting firm in Shanghai said they advise clients to apply for a visa to Vanuatu while awaiting visas to more popular destinations like Canada, which currently has an immigration backlog of two to three years.
“There’s a long wait on Canada right now, so it could take two to three years,” the staffer said. “I would recommend Vanuatu because everything is processed faster there.”
“If you have to go fast, you can get a green card in just a week and a passport in a month,” they said. “Vanuatu supports dual citizenship, so you can keep your Chinese citizenship if you want.”
“You could then use the Vanuatu passport as a stepping stone, which is an easier and more convenient way to travel to countries like Australia and New Zealand, which is more difficult for us here in China,” the staffer said.
They cited ongoing zero-COVID policies as a key factor in motivating their company’s customers.
“Fear in the Middle Class”
Chinese political scientist Chen Daoyin, who recently emigrated overseas, said he is not alone and the exodus is focused on the middle class, which has tasted the fruits of 40 years of market-oriented economic policies and is concerned about China’s post-March 20 . Party congress chaired.
Faced with unbearable situations caused by zero-COVID, they choose to uproot everything and leave, he said.
“I call this phenomenon middle class anxiety,” Chen told RFA. “Most of the middle class grew up under market-oriented economic reforms and opening-up [to the rest of the world]and experienced all the changes and freedoms that it brought.”
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, and particularly since the 20th Party Congress, China’s future direction has become much clearer, and this fear has spawned the ‘runs’ phenomenon,” he said.
“The middle class is voting with their feet on the current situation in China; she doesn’t trust Xi Jinping, so this is a vote of no confidence and a vote for freedom in the current situation,” Chen said.
And there is evidence that authorities are about to crack down on immigration advisers who help people leave the country.
A WeChat account with the handle @SunnyImmigrantVisaPermanentResidentPassportProject, flagged as located in eastern Jiangsu province, posted on Thursday: “Just received instructions from the company overnight to delete all immigration-related content from WeChat Moments and to withdraw from all WeChat Groups related to emigration.”
According to the report, some employees of the company were interrogated by the state security police with the euphemism “drinking tea”.
“Some of my colleagues were invited for tea,” the post said. RFA could not independently verify the content of the post. “[The authorities] possibly close to rectification. Maybe in the future there won’t be any immigration consultancies that can help anyone.”
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.