Clara Xie had long wondered whether she might leave China one day. She chafed at the country’s censorship regime, and as a lesbian, she wanted to live in a country more accepting of same-sex relationships. Still, the idea felt distant — she was young, and didn’t even know which country she would choose.
The coronavirus, and China’s stringent efforts to stop it, thrust the question to the front of her mind. Two years of travel restrictions have made it impossible for Ms. Xie, 25, to see her girlfriend, who lives in the United States. When Shanghai locked down in March, her work as a model, much of which was based there, dried up.
She is now working with an immigration lawyer to explore her options for leaving.
Ms. Xie is among a small but growing group of Chinese who are looking to the exits as China’s pandemic controls drag into their third year. Many are middle-class or wealthy Shanghai residents who have been trapped for nearly two months by a citywide lockdown that has battered the economy and limited access to food and medicine. Some, like Ms. Xie, have ties overseas and worry that China’s door to the world is closing. Others are disheartened by heightened government censorship and surveillance, which the pandemic has aggravated.
“I can’t change or condemn the current situation in China,” said Ms. Xie, who lives in Jiangsu Province, bordering Shanghai. “And if you can’t change it, all you can do is run.”
The urge to leave contrasts with the authorities’ triumphant narrative of the pandemic, which says that their rigid controls have made China the only safe haven in a world devastated by the virus. It is another sign that the government’s zero Covid strategy is coming at an increasingly high cost.
Online searches for “emigration” increased by 440 percent last month, according to one tracker. Some internet users have even coined a trending term for the mindset: “run philosophy.” Immigration consultants say inquiries about leaving China have surged since the Shanghai lockdown.
“A doubling, for sure,” said Edward Lehman, a lawyer based in Shanghai who offers immigration services.
The true number of people who will actually try to leave is unclear. Only about 10 percent of Chinese had passports in 2019. The United States has also made it harder for some Chinese students to apply for visas, citing national security concerns.
The Chinese authorities are also clamping down on departures. Last week, China’s immigration administration said that it would “strictly restrict nonessential exit activities by Chinese citizens.” It described the move as pandemic-related, to reduce imported infections, but some Chinese social media users saw the measures as aimed at preventing a brain drain.
The government had already announced last year that it would not renew or issue most ordinary passports, except for business, study abroad or emergencies. The number of passports issued in the first half of 2021 was 2 percent of the same period in 2019, according to the national immigration administration. In at least one city, Leiyang, in Hunan Province, the authorities collected residents’ passports to prevent them from leaving, though an official reached by phone this week said that policy was no longer in effect.
Some Chinese nationals want to leave because of a sense that the country’s restrictions have put it increasingly out of step with the rest of the world.
“I feel like they don’t really care how much people have been through,” said Cherry Burton, 29, a Chinese citizen from Shanghai who took her American husband’s last name. “It’s all about zero Covid.” Because of Shanghai’s lockdown, she and her husband have not left their apartment since April 1. Now they plan to leave the country as soon as the lockdown lifts and she can complete her application for a visa to the United States.
The frustration is not limited to Shanghai. People in other cities have worried that similar lockdowns could soon hit them, or are feeling the economic pinch of the country’s lockdowns.
Jason Xia, 51, who runs a decorating business in the city of Nanjing, used to travel to other provinces regularly for work. But he has been unable to do so for weeks because of travel restrictions across the country that grew from the Shanghai lockdown. This month, he joined his wife and two children in Malta, where the family had earlier applied for residency.
“Everyone knows the situation in China right now: You basically can’t do anything,” he said.
Mr. Xia had initially planned to split time between the two countries to keep running his business, but now is hesitant to return to China until the lockdowns loosen. Leaving seemed urgent because his passport was set to expire within a year, and he feared that Chinese officials at home would refuse to renew it, but hoped those in Malta might be more willing.
To circumvent immigration officials’ limits on issuing passports except for work or study, some Chinese have bought fake foreign job offers or school acceptance letters, according to Sixth Tone, a state-run news outlet based in Shanghai.
The country’s inward turn has made some young Chinese wonder about their own future careers, said Jenny Zhao, 33, who runs a charity that mentors university students.
“Students ask me the same question: ‘How should we face this changing world in China?’” said Ms. Zhao, who lived and worked in France for a decade. “‘Do we have less opportunities than you did?’” She tells them to focus on the opportunities at home rather than overseas.
For other young Chinese, the shrinking sense of opportunity has only strengthened their determination to get out.
On Zhihu, a question-and-answer website, a post asking for an explanation of the online “run philosophy” trend has been read more than 7.5 million times. On GitHub, an online platform popular among coders, a dedicated forum offers tips on which academic programs in which countries are easiest to get into.
Describing why they wanted to leave, some commenters cited the monotony of being locked down. Others pointed to economic woes, such as the hypercompetitive job market among recent graduates. Still others were explicitly political.
One essay on the GitHub forum, titled “Why I must run,” said: “The tyrannical system of a great leader must always be correct,” referring to the Chinese government’s refusal to change its Covid policies. “People here are like captive monkeys.”
Still, even the most devoted adherents acknowledge that the paths out remain narrow. They warn of the long odds of the visa lottery in Western countries, and the costs of tuition.
Forrest Sheng Bao, a computer science professor at Iowa State University who posted on GitHub offering to help potential applicants, said many of the roughly 15 people who had contacted him in recent weeks would not be able to afford tuition or qualify for scholarships.
Those who can leave know that it will not be easy for them, either.
Ray Chen, who works in financial technology in Beijing, said he expected that his career prospects would be limited if he moved overseas, and that he might be lonely. But he had sought out an immigration consultant anyway, and was considering Portugal or Greece.
While the pandemic was not the only reason he wanted to leave — he also desired a lower cost of living, and legalized same-sex marriage — China’s lockdowns had crystallized his fear that he had too little control over his life.
“It’s not just the pandemic in Shanghai, but that the entire country has gone to extremes,” Mr. Chen said. “Those who actually make decisions regarding my living environment have absolute power, yet they have diametrically opposed viewpoints to mine.”
He added, “This is very scary and makes me feel there is no reason to stay.”
Claire Fu and Isabelle Qian contributed research and reporting.