When Wendy Luo*, a 29-year-old Chinese woman, handed over her passport to a border control officer in Shanghai airport last month, her heart began to beat fast. “I felt like my fate would be determined at that moment. Leave or stay, all at the officer’s mercy.”
After enduring months of lockdowns and weeks of food shortages, Luo had begun to look for an exit strategy from China. She was lucky, she said, because she quickly managed to find a job in Paris, having spent six years studying and working in France and being in possession of a resident visa.
“The border control officer in Shanghai asked many questions,” Luo said. “They included why I was leaving China, what did I do in Shanghai in the last couple of years, and what I was going to do in France. Most importantly, whether I plan to return to China any time soon. I pretended to be calm when giving my answers, but I was actually extremely nervous.”
Until last year, China’s zero-Covid policy had won much support from its citizens. When western countries such as the US and the UK recorded hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of infections, the ruling Communist party used the opportunity to emphasise the virtues of its system of government.
Yet when strict lockdowns began to be enforced across many cities in China, including Shanghai, from the start of 2022, doubts and criticisms began to rise. China’s economy was hit hard, and young graduates complained about not being able to find work. The economy showed signs of rebound in June, but since the more transmissible Omicron subvariant, BA.5, was discovered this month, many have begun to speculate again whether renewed lockdowns in cities such as Shanghai are on the way.
Many disillusioned urban Chinese citizens have started planning to leave the country. Online, “run philosophy”, or “run xue” – a coded way of talking about emigrating – has become a buzzword. On Zhihu, a post explaining the phenomenon has been read more than 9m times since January.
Elsewhere on Chinese language social media, forums have been set up to exchange tips about how to maximise the chances of being admitted to overseas academic programmes. Immigration agencies reported the number of business inquiries had shot up too over the past few months.
‘People’s rights can be so easily taken away’
Mark Li*, a 24-year-old history teacher in the southern province of Hainan, jokingly calls himself a member of the “run philosophy club”. After spending four years as an undergraduate student in the US, Li came back to China in the summer of 2020 to build a career in teaching.
“Initially, the idea of leaving China started with the frustration of censorship that began to build in my day-to-day job. And when lockdowns in Shanghai began, I started to think harder about it: people’s rights can be so easily taken away, even in the most outward-looking city like Shanghai,” he told the Guardian.
The last straw, according to Li, was the recent announcement in Beijing that it would “unremittingly grasp the normalisation of epidemic prevention and control in the next five years”. The line caught the eyes of China’s Covid-fatigued citizens. After an outcry online, the reference to “five years” was removed from Chinese media, and a related hashtag on Weibo was deleted.
Yet Li was determined. He saw all of this as a sign of deeper changes that are taking place in China today. “When I came back to China two years ago I was planning on a life and career in the country. I was very optimistic … But Covid seemed to have revealed the rotten core of Chinese politics and turned the country upside down – in a short span of two years.”
It is difficult to know how many of those who pondered leaving did leave in the end. Official emigration figures for this year are not immediately available. According to the United Nations population fund (UNFPA), there was only a total Chinese emigration of 6.9 million over the years from 2000 to 2021. And measured as a share of China’s total population, the UNFPA said, it is “negligible”. In May, Beijing said it would “strictly limit” unnecessary travel outside the country by Chinese citizens.
Rachel Murphy, a professor of Chinese development and society at Oxford University, said the rise of the run philosophy “sits alongside other sentiments that have in recent years become popular in China’s social media, such as ‘lying flat’” – taking an extended break from relentless work.
The popularity of run philosophy, she said, indicated that people want to opt out of a social order that has become hyper-competitive, exhausting and unpredictable.
“The recent lockdown in Shanghai also increased the visibility of unchecked party-state power on individuals,” she said. “Yet, the costs of using their voice to try to change things are too high for Chinese citizens. So that leaves them with dreams of exit.”
But Murphy said that this was not to say that these young people were not loyal to China and their nationalistic sentiments were very strong. “Right now, though, some people feel they want to escape the present circumstances of their lives.”
The sense of uncertainty was shared in China’s expatriate community across different industries, too. While Chinese citizens face tough hurdles to leave, foreign residents find it tough to stay. This pains Andrea Caballé, a Spanish lawyer who has called Beijing home for the past decade.
Last month, after she began the process of preparing to move back to Barcelona, her home town, Caballé broke into tears in her Hutong apartment in downtown Beijing. “I spent a decade of my life in China. I have loved this country, but now I feel that I have no choice but to go back home,” she said.
Caballé, who turned 37 this year, began her career as an intern in 2012 in the Chinese capital. Over the past decade, she has thrived professionally. She now works for the European Union in Beijing, facilitating legal exchanges between Europe and China.
But since Covid struck, Caballé said the sudden lockdowns brought her constant stress and were demoralising. “I don’t want to be told one day that I couldn’t leave due to Covid when I really have to, for example, visit my elderly parents in Spain,” she said.
Luo, now finally settled in Paris after months of distress, said she will stay in France for as long as she can. “I don’t know when I’ll be back in China next,” she said. “Rumour has it that ‘zero Covid’ probably won’t end until 2025. So I’ll have to find a way to stay in France until then, at least.”
*Names of the two Chinese interviewees were changed to protect their identity; additional reporting by Xiaoqian Zhu