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Travelers wait in line at a check-in counter at Kunming Changshui International Airport, Kunming, China. Travelers wait in line at a check-in counter at Kunming Changshui International Airport, Kunming, China, March 22, 2022 (AP photo by Dake Kang).

China’s Elites Are Rushing for the Exits

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

A growing number of Chinese middle- and upper-class citizens are seeking to emigrate, citing disillusionment with Beijing’s heavy-handed “Zero COVID” pandemic restrictions. The sense of despair and desperation driving their planned departures stand in contrast to the overwhelming sense of optimism that characterized public sentiment during China’s rise as a global power over the past two decades.

On the Chinese social media platform WeChat, search entries for the word “immigration” increased more than fourfold between early and mid-April, the Economist reported. “It’s like an alarm bell has gone off,” said Miranda Wang, a Chinese videographer based in Shanghai, where a seven-week lockdown is causing anguish in local communities. Conditions in the city are not expected to return to normal until the end of June at the earliest, and a gradual reopening could be set back by a new surge of infections. “Now we realize, Shanghai is still China’s Shanghai … No matter how much money, education or international access you have, you cannot escape the authorities,” said Wang.

Ying Cao, a New York-based immigration lawyer, told The Wall Street Journal that inquiries for her services from high-net-worth individuals and middle-class professionals in China have surged tenfold in the past two past months. She compared the phenomenon to 1949, when the Communist Party’s rise to power prompted an exodus of more than 2 million people from mainland China to Taiwan and Hong Kong. “There is a shared sense of fear and urgency to get out,” said Cao.


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Beijing’s zero-COVID policy once enjoyed popular support among the public, mostly because it kept coronavirus fatalities in China remarkably low compared to other parts of the world, including the United States and Europe. The country has reported approximately 5,200 deaths, compared to a whopping 1 million in the U.S. But confidence in the policy’s sustainability is waning as the steep costs of Beijing’s elimination-centered strategy rise and the disruptions to global commerce and other daily activities increase with the more transmissible omicron variant. But despite growing doubts about the efficacy of Beijing’s pandemic response, Chinese authorities remain defiant, insisting that the measures are here to stay, perhaps for even longer than anticipated.

Earlier this month, China postponed the Asian Games scheduled to take place in September in Hangzhou until 2023, citing the public health crisis. A week after that announcement, China also withdrew as the host of the 2023 Asian Cup finals. The series of cancellations points to a shift in priorities for Beijing, which has in the past been enthusiastic about hosting international sporting events due to the perceived prestige and soft-power benefits they provide. The cancellations indicate that Beijing now places a greater priority on increased control of the economy and public health than on international showcases.

Aside from the closed borders and recurring lockdowns, other aspects of the pandemic restrictions are also expected to become effectively permanent. Writing Monday in the Communist Party publication Qiushi, Ma Xiaowei, head of the National Health Commission, declared that health officials intend to commit more resources to implement the zero-COVID policy. This includes the construction of permanent dedicated hospitals—as opposed to temporary facilities—to treat patients infected with the coronavirus as well as thousands of testing stations across the country, with the goal of having at least one testing station within a 15-minute walk of every residence in major Chinese cities.

The prospect of a perpetual lockdown under these stringent conditions is pushing many Chinese citizens to contemplate emigration, but that is an option reserved for a privileged minority. And with China’s borders remaining mostly closed and international travel kept to a bare minimum, leaving the country is difficult under existing conditions. In Shanghai, for instance, merely getting to the airport is a hassle, given the number of physical barriers authorities have put on roads and streets, to say nothing of other restrictions when it comes to exiting residential compounds and traveling. International travel to and from China is now so complicated that even for foreign visitors with access to consular assistance, getting on a one-way flight out is not guaranteed, as CNN’s David Culver noted.

For locals intending to travel out of the country, there are additional hurdles to clear. China has stopped renewing passports for “non-essential” travel since February, citing “security risks” caused by cross-border travel and the latest coronavirus outbreak. Taking it up a notch, Chinese immigration authorities announced Monday that they would “strictly limit” unnecessary outbound travel, but did not clarify what kind of trips out of the country would be permitted under the updated guidelines.

Last week, authorities were forced to deny rumors that they had stopped issuing passports for Chinese citizens intending to travel out of the country and were invalidating the passports of returning Chinese nationals who reside overseas. The rumors began to circulate after a report by Radio Free Asia suggested that incoming Chinese nationals living abroad had been stopped by border officials for questioning upon arrival in China and, in some cases, had their passports clipped and invalidated.

But those reports, regardless of their veracity, just might increase the desire of many Chinese citizens to flee the country. Run while you can, as the saying goes.

In Other News

Cardinal Joseph Zen was arrested last week by Hong Kong’s national security police for alleged “collusion with foreign forces.” Zen, who served as bishop of Hong Kong between 2002 and 2009, was arrested along with four other trustees of a now-defunct humanitarian fund that provided legal aid to protesters who participated in the 2019 pro-democracy demonstrations. The other detained individuals were attorney Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee, singer Denise Ho Wan-sze, former legislator Cyd Ho and the scholar Hui Po-keung. Zen’s arrest sent shockwaves throughout Hong Kong’s Christian community, which has nonetheless mostly stayed silent for fear of a backlash against them.

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A leaked Chinese police database has revealed the identities of more than 10,000 Uyghurs detained in secret detention centers and prisons across Xinjiang, shedding more light on China’s brutal crackdown on ethnic minorities in the region. Most of the detainees were convicted of vague terrorism-related offenses, with their sentences handed down in secret trials. The list, which appears to have been leaked to Uyghur activists abroad, has helped many of them locate their missing relatives. “This is not clearly-targeted anti-terrorism,” David Tobin, a lecturer in East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield in Britain told AFP. “It’s going to every door and taking a number of people away. It really shows they’re arbitrarily targeting a community and dispersing it across a region.”

Worth a Read

Lingling Wei, the Wall Street Journal’s chief China correspondent, writes about a subtle power shift at the highest echelons of the Chinese government. Premier Li Keqiang, Beijing’s second-in-command, is increasingly taking on a more active role in policymaking after having long been sidelined by President Xi Jinping, amid deepening fears of a prolonged economic slump in China. Described by associates as a cautious politician driven by pragmatism, Li is rolling back some of the sweeping policies Xi has introduced, including the regulatory crackdown on tech companies and the drive for “common prosperity.” The 66-year-old Li is reportedly also trying to influence the selection process for his successor as No. 2, aiming for a replacement who can serve as a credible counterweight to Xi, sources close to Beijing’s leadership told Wei.

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Timothy McLaughlin writes in The Atlantic about the dramatic tales of three Hong Kong activists who fled to the U.S. in the wake of the 2019 pro-democracy protests. “Beijing’s crusade to strip Hong Kong of its defining freedoms has created a wave of exiles,” McLaughlin writes. These asylum-seekers, often young people with few adult experiences, have “put their fate in the hands of the U.S., a country they still see as a beacon in their fight against China.” Their collision with the U.S. immigration system, however, can produce stranger-than-fiction results. One activist deliberately tried to get caught by border guards when crossing from Mexico into the U.S., after hearing on television that detained migrants get asylum faster.

China Note-Taker is writing anonymously for reasons of personal security.

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