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More Chinese citizens want to emigrate because of discontent with Beijing’s Covid strategy, but many face hurdles in obtaining passports and paperwork

More than two years of border restrictions and a protracted lockdown of Shanghai are prompting some Chinese citizens to contemplate emigration, a prospect once unthinkable for many of them.

The planned departures, many of them by middle- or upper-class residents of Shanghai, China’s most prosperous city, come as the country reaffirms its commitment to a stringent Covid-19 policy that has sharply diverged from the rest of the world.

One Shanghai resident was close to securing a coveted Shanghai residency permit. But the citywide lockdown, which has lasted more than six weeks, has shaken her and left her looking for a way out. She is now planning to emigrate to the U.S., where her employer is based.

Another Shanghai resident, Chester Yu, first began forming plans to leave China in early 2020 when the initial outbreak swept across China. At the time, local authorities locked down his parents’ residential compound in the central Chinese province of Anhui while he was visiting, leaving Mr. Yu’s family confined to their compound for three months.

“I felt like I was in jail," recalled Mr. Yu, 26 years old, who was studying for a master’s degree at a university in Shanghai at the time. “I could sense where China was heading back then."

Once the lockdown was lifted, Mr. Yu applied for a passport. Last year, he paid an immigration agency the equivalent of about $440 to help him apply to a language school in Japan. He obtained a Japanese residence permit in October.

Now locked in his apartment in Shanghai as he finishes his master’s degree, Mr. Yu said he feels numb after witnessing the suffering across Shanghai, where people have been taken to quarantine centers against their will and migrant workers have been forced to sleep in the streets as their compounds lock them out. He is waiting for restrictions to lift enough to apply for a visa at the Japanese consulate and leave after he graduates this summer.

In recent weeks, The Wall Street Journal has spoken to more than a dozen Chinese citizens contemplating or accelerating exit plans as Shanghai’s lockdown drags on and leaders in Beijing redouble their commitment to their zero-Covid strategy.

Immigration lawyers and agents say they have seen a surge in inquiries over the past month. Emigration-focused chat groups have sprung up on China’s ubiquitous WeChat messaging app as well as on encrypted platforms like Telegram.

Over the past two months, said Ying Cao, a New York-based immigration lawyer, inquiries from Chinese high-net-worth individuals and middle-class professionals have surged 10-fold compared with a year earlier.

“They feel like it’s 1949 all over again," said Ms. Cao, referring to the exodus of more than two million Chinese people to Taiwan and Hong Kong as the Communist Party won control of the Chinese mainland. “There is a shared sense of fear and urgency to get out."

Searches on WeChat for yimin, the Chinese word for emigration, started increasing in March, around the time that Shanghai was tightening Covid controls in response to a surge in cases.

On March 15, Chinese users searched or shared content involving yimin 16 million times, according to WeChat’s publicly available data. A month later, on April 15, there were 72 million such searches and shares. A Chinese character, which is transliterated as run, a homophone for the English word, has become a popular meme in recent weeks.

As searches for emigration have surged, the word itself appears to have become sensitive. Analytics tools operated by Chinese internet giants Baidu Inc. and Weibo Corp. no longer provide data on search interest for the term. Baidu declined to comment. Weibo didn’t respond to requests for comment.

While the desire for emigration is believed to be limited largely to young, wealthy city dwellers, their growing sense of alienation reflects rising domestic discontent over Beijing’s Covid strategy, which seeks to crush even small outbreaks of the virus with severe restrictions on people’s movements.

On Friday, Shanghai said it had recorded 2,096 new Covid infections, accounting for most new cases nationwide. Though cases have come down dramatically since late March, authorities in recent days have tightened restrictions in Shanghai, vowing to fully eradicate the virus.

Even for those with the financial means to leave, the process has become more complicated. China has tightened border controls and stepped up measures to prevent capital flight. Restrictions have increased on notarizations for immigration-related purposes, especially asset notarizations for those trying to emigrate through investment immigration programs, according to a U.S.-based immigration lawyer and an Australia-based immigration agent.

For those weighing emigration, the hurdles begin with securing a passport. China’s National Immigration Administration in August restricted passport issuance and renewal to citizens who can supply documentation showing that they are leaving for school, work or business purposes, citing the need to minimize the risk of travelers bringing back infections. In the first six months of 2021, China issued 335,000 passports—just 2% of the number during the same period in 2019.

This week, Chinese immigration authorities said they would more strictly regulate approval of exit permits in a bid to curtail what they called “unnecessary outbound travel."

One 39-year-old Chinese technology executive moved to Shanghai in 2020 and was enjoying a comfortable life there, buying an apartment and sending his son to an international school. His plan was to spend the rest of his life in Shanghai.

That changed in April, when Shanghai imposed the citywide lockdown, confining him to his apartment and leaving him struggling to secure even basic groceries. “How can I live in a place where basic necessities for living can’t be guaranteed?" he said. A regulatory campaign to rein in the tech sector also contributed to his desire to leave.

After six weeks, with no end in sight to the restrictions, he and his family decided to emigrate to Singapore. He applied for his son to enroll at a private school there so that he could secure an admissions letter—a necessary precondition for renewing his son’s expired passport.

Even those who have decided to leave have encountered challenges just physically departing a city under strict lockdown. One Shanghai resident bought plane tickets to the U.S. for her and her husband, secured a driver willing to ferry them to the airport for six times the regular fare and signed a written pledge to local authorities that they wouldn’t return to Shanghai in the near future—reflecting concerns that overseas returnees could bring back the virus.

After a ride to the airport that included two police checks of their paperwork and Covid tests, she and her husband, business partners in a Shanghai-based technology startup, flew to San Francisco, where they are now based.

Middle-class professionals, particularly those with children, are keenly aware of the wrenching sacrifices that emigration entails.

In Suzhou, a city 60 miles west of Shanghai, a factory manager surnamed Wang says he wants to ensure his children don’t grow up in a society he believes is growing more authoritarian. But he wrestles with the pain of not being able to see his elderly parents after his family of four moves to Canada.

“It is a tough choice," said Mr. Wang, 42.

The tech executive moving to Singapore is hesitant about leaving China for good. “I’m worried that I won’t be able to adapt to a new society," he said. “But my son should be fine."

 

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