‘Philosophy of racing’: The emigration of young Chinese eyes amid COVID lockdowns

Scenes of mass exodus have unfolded in Shanghai in recent weeks as authorities scramble to contain the country’s biggest COVID-19 outbreak. On several occasions, people lined up for at least a mile on the access road to Hongqiao Station, scruffy refugees displaced against a backdrop of manicured boulevards and futuristic skyscrapers.

For many urban and educated millennials, the lockdowns and quarantines imposed in Shanghai and dozens of cities across the country have been a traumatic and groundbreaking ordeal that has shaken their sense of security. Even since Shanghai reopened on June 1, new cases have led authorities to impose new lockdowns, raising concerns about an endless cycle of easing and restrictions. Young Chinese have fled Shanghai in droves, and now some are considering leaving the country altogether.

Why we wrote this

The strict COVID-19 lockdowns and the experience of having their freedoms taken away have changed some young Chinese people’s perspective on their country. Once willing to sacrifice a degree of freedom for economic security, many are now rethinking their future.

On social networks, discussions on emigration are multiplying. Chinese netizens created a word for it – runxueor “execute philosophy”.

“It reflects a kind of escape psychology – people choose to run away from this place,” says Chen Daoyin, a political scientist and former associate professor at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law. “The middle-class group expected a decent life [in China]. … Before, they traded freedom for security, but now they have neither freedom nor security.”

beijing

In the deserted streets of Shanghai, some people pedaled silently on bicycles, dragging wheeled bags with one hand or precariously balancing luggage on the front wheels. Others fled the city’s lockdown on foot, wearing full hazmat suits and carrying stuff stuffed into plastic bags. They lined up for at least a mile on the access road to Hongqiao Station, scruffy displaced refugees against a backdrop of manicured boulevards and futuristic skyscrapers. Among the crowd was Carol, a writer.

She remembers inspecting the scene in May, shocked at how the ultramodern, cosmopolitan city she saw as a splendid castle had transformed overnight into a place of mass deprivation.

“After this experience in Shanghai, everyone feels like we are not living in a palace after all, but in a mud-brick house with a thatched roof,” says Carol, who spent more than two months confined in his building with little food. during the nation’s largest COVID-19 outbreak. A Chinese citizen, she asked to use only her English name to protect her identity.

Why we wrote this

The strict COVID-19 lockdowns and the experience of having their freedoms taken away have changed some young Chinese people’s perspective on their country. Once willing to sacrifice a degree of freedom for economic security, many are now rethinking their future.

Similar scenes of exodus have unfolded in the city of 25 million in recent days and weeks. For many urban, educated millennials like Carol, the lockdowns and quarantines imposed in Shanghai and dozens of cities across the country have been a traumatic and groundbreaking ordeal that has shaken their sense of security. People have fled Shanghai in droves, and now some are considering leaving China altogether.

“The middle-class group expected a decent life,” says Chen Daoyin, a political scientist and former associate professor at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law. “Before, they traded freedom for security, but now they have neither freedom nor security.”

What struck Carol about the Shanghai lockdown was that no one could protect themselves. “This thing is universal – your freedom of residence and your freedom to travel will be restricted. … Everyone is suffering,” she says from her hotel room in a neighboring province. No matter how much money you have or the size of your home, she adds, “you can knock on the door and be taken away in the middle of the night.”

Passengers in protective gear wait for their train at Hongqiao railway station in Shanghai, May 22, 2022. In recent weeks, people have fled the locked metropolis in droves.

Fearing that China’s strict zero COVID-19 controls could further encroach on basic freedoms and lead to economic and social stagnation, Carol and many of her peers are exploring contingency plans to move overseas.

Carol, who has never lived abroad before, plans to work harder and earn more. “If I have enough money,” she said, “I will go.”

Flee

When Joanna returned to Shanghai three years ago after graduating from college in the United States, she expected to live in China for the rest of her life. A two-month confinement made him change his mind.

“It exceeded my worst predictions,” the Shanghai-based media worker says, asking not to release her last name to protect her identity. His goal now is to obtain permanent residence in another country, while retaining his Chinese nationality. “I want that option,” she says, to avoid the “terrifying” feeling that she’s trapped in China.

China has allowed millions of its young people to study abroad over the past decades, but the majority have returned home, anticipating they will have better career opportunities here. Yet as strict COVID-19 policy takes a heavy economic and social toll, including high urban unemployment, some returning students like Joanna are once again looking outward.

Joanna’s main concern is that the zero COVID-19 policy, while successful in keeping the number of cases and deaths in China low, is no longer economically feasible. Official figures show China’s economy has contracted in recent months, with retail sales and industrial production falling. “If you keep suppressing people’s morale, everyone loses their desire to consume,” she says.

Even since Shanghai reopened for the most part on June 1, new outbreaks have led authorities to impose new lockdowns, raising concerns about an endless cycle of easing and restrictions. More than a million people remain confined to their homes or in quarantine facilities.

Meanwhile, online discussions about “leaking China” have surged. Chinese netizens created a word for it – runxueor “racing philosophy,” a pun using a Chinese character that sounds like “running” in English.

“It reflects a kind of escape psychology – people choose to run away from this place,” says Dr Chen.

Residents gather to celebrate the lifting of a COVID-19 lockdown on the bund in Shanghai on June 1, 2022. City authorities said they would take major steps to reopen China’s biggest city after a lockdown two-month period that has shrunk the national economy and confined millions of people to their homes.

On WeChat, China’s leading social media app, Chinese users searched for the term emigration more than 100 million times in a single day in May, according to data released by the company. Emigration has also been a popular topic on China’s Twitter-like social media platform, Weibo, and millions of people viewed a question about “race philosophy” on Zhihu, China’s version of Quora.

Users of GitHub, the world’s largest open-source software platform, have put together a repository that brings together detailed strategies and advice on how to emigrate from China.

“’Running’ is a kind of risk aversion,” says Joanna. “A lot of people are thinking about it. They may not have pulled the trigger, but if things continue to go wrong, I think a lot of people will take concrete action.

Exit strategy

Allen Ai, a Chinese accounting student in Italy, left China a year ago after losing his job during the pandemic. He is now receiving messages from contacts back home asking for advice on moving abroad.

Yet even as COVID-19 restrictions push some young people to try to emigrate, Chinese authorities are imposing stricter controls on those trying to leave.

Citing pandemic prevention requirements, the National Immigration Administration announced last month that it will “strictly limit non-essential outgoing activities of Chinese citizens.” Last year it announced it would suspend issuing passports to people with “non-emergency” reasons to leave the country.

China is unlikely to lift these outbound travel restrictions as long as it maintains the zero COVID-19 policy, which is currently here to stay, experts say.

Ma Xiaowei, head of the National Health Commission, wrote in the Communist Party publication Qiushi on May 16 that China plans to set up a large number of booths for regular COVID-19 testing in all provincial capitals. and cities with more than 10 million inhabitants, while creating permanent quarantine centers. The aim is to maintain COVID-19 prevention while reducing disruption to normal life – an approach that has recently shown better results in Beijing.

“Mass screenings, makeshift shelters and a green code for travel – this could be the status in China for the next three to five years, or five to 10 years,” says Dr Chen, referring to the code system of the Health that tracks each individual’s COVID-19 risk status.

As for Mr. Ai, he is seeking permanent resident status in Italy, where he expects to have more opportunities. “I think I made the right decision,” he said. “If I stay in China, I don’t know what I can do.”