“Zero covid” and confinements in China make many dream of leaving

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By most accounts, Zhu Aitao has it all. Now she’s ready to leave it all behind.

The 35-year-old, from China’s Shandong province, lives in Beijing’s wealthiest neighborhood with her husband – her high school sweetheart – and their two young children. They own their house and two cars, a BMW and a Lexus. They both have stable jobs: Zhu manages public relations at a multinational automobile company, while her husband writes for a government-owned newspaper.

Fed up with their lives being dictated by pandemic measures – the frequent and sudden closures, the endless rounds of mass testing and the constant uncertainty – Zhu hopes to move his family to Thailand as soon as possible and eventually immigrate to Europe or the United States. .

“I feel like I have an emotional breakdown,” she said. “I feel helpless. It’s like an overbearing father telling you that it’s all for your good. You just need to listen. Don’t ask questions.

Zhu is among a growing number of Chinese urban professionals who subscribe to a new school of thought known as runxue, the study of how to “flee” one’s country of origin. For many like Zhu, it’s not just about China’s tough ‘zero covid’ policy, but what the future looks like in a society where politics – maintaining the leader’s policies costs cost – trumps science and the well-being of residents whose daily lives are increasingly subject to state interference.

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“It’s migration driven by a sense of disillusionment,” said Xiang Biao, director of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany, which focuses on migration. “People are not running away from the virus. People shun these top-down measures and disregard the feelings and dignity of individuals. »

Emigration inquiries have increased since chaotic lockdown measures were imposed in April in China’s most populous city, Shanghai, where residents have struggled to feed themselves and watched family members die after being unable to get medical attention for non-covid emergencies. The term runxue, or “the science of running”, has quickly gained momentum online among disgruntled residents in Shanghai and dozens of other Chinese cities under some form of lockdown.

On April 3, when a senior Chinese official visited Shanghai and ordered “unwavering” adherence to zero covid, searches for “emigration” on the social media platform WeChat jumped more than 400% per compared to the day before and again by nearly 500% on May 17. as restrictions continued. Searches for requirements to immigrate to Canada and Malaysia, as well as the question “good immigration destinations”, increased twentyfold between late March and early April, according to Baidu data.

Looking on from afar, Luna Liu, a PhD candidate in England at the University of London and originally from Tianjin, posted on the Douban forum that she would give free advice to anyone looking to move to Britain. She now has appointments booked through November, with half a dozen people still on a waiting list.

“I can feel that many of those I spoke to had illusions about the system at home. After the Shanghai lockdown, those illusions were shattered. They realized that if they want to live freely, they have to get out away,” Liu said.

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Although runxue did not trigger a mass migration, it is the latest example of deeper pessimism in China amid slowing growth, historic levels of youth unemployment, an increasingly prohibitive political environment and uncertainty over the opening of the China as the country increasingly looks inward.

A joke often seen online is that stressed city dwellers have three options. They may continue to struggle in the rat race of Chinese society, making little headway in an approach known as neijuan, or “involution,” the process of turning inward into self-destructive competition with others. Others may choose to retreat from a life of effort and pitching instead, or “lie flat.” Now, those who have the means can choose to emigrate or “flee”.

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“It’s definitely not a normal phenomenon, nor something that would be widely talked about in a healthy society,” said Li Nuo, 45, from Hebei province, who was granted permanent residency in Japan last year. and now runs an e-commerce. company in Osaka. Recently, he helped friends and family to leave China.

“If China is really as powerful and big as it claims, why are so many people willing to go into exile, and why do so many young people have no sense of security? What it says is that this society is sick,” he said.

Foreign passports and green cards have long been the privilege of China’s wealthier families, often seeking better educational opportunities for their children. Now, more and more middle-class families and young people are also looking for a way out.

Joy Zhou, 23, who works in a non-governmental organization in Beijing, plans to move to Canada in the next year or two to study and hopes to establish her permanent residence there. Zhou started thinking about going abroad last year to experience living in a new cultural environment. Now she feels a sense of urgency.

“Leaving is not just about the pandemic. I don’t identify myself with about 80% of mainstream social values ​​here,” she said, noting her concern about women’s rights, the treatment of workers and increasingly limited freedom of speech in China. “This system is definitely upside down. People seem to have learned to live in an unreasonable system, but will our lives ever get better? »

While many are talking about leaving, few will make the leap, according to Julia Jing, a consultant at Pacific Overseas Group in Beijing, which offers immigration advice. She said the company received more inquiries in the first four months of this year than in all of 2021.

Jing said while there are more overseas opportunities for Chinese entrepreneurs and tech specialists at a time when domestic companies are laying off workers, residents also need to consider things like care. to elderly parents, language barriers or the possibility that border controls prevent them from returning home indefinitely.

Yet netizens, older and younger, are posting comprehensive and detailed articles on the logistics and technicalities of emigration, despite the fact that they are unlikely to act on such advice. Discussing the possibility of emigrating becomes both a form of fantasy and a way to let off steam.

“People think that runxue is not just a way for them to imagine a different life. It’s a way to imagine their autonomy,” said Xiang, of the Max Planck Institute. way to express anger, helplessness and disappointment.”

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Official attitudes towards emigration, once seen as a betrayal of socialist ideology during the early years of the People’s Republic of China, have softened over the years. Waves of emigration include students, contract workers, activists and other migrants in the 1980s and 1990s. Authorities further opened up applications for passports from ordinary citizens, which for years were restricted to government officials , and as of mid-2019, about 13% of the mainland population had them, according to government data.

Now, as authorities scramble to attract talent and prevent brain drain in the face of a declining and aging population, some fear emigration is once again becoming politicized. Over the past two years, authorities have issued fewer passports and restricted foreign travel in the name of covid measures.

Last year, China issued 630,000 passports, compared to an average of 10.8 million per year from 2002 to 2017. In May, the National Immigration Administration said it would continue to “strictly limit non-essential departures” of Chinese citizens.

On social media, netizens have posted stories of passports confiscated by employers or residence cards and foreign passports cut up by border officials. The immigration authority denied in May that passports had been suspended or residency certificates invalidated.

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While censors don’t appear to be heavily moderating online discussion of runxue, authorities are likely to be concerned about an ideology that encourages leaving the country. On WeChat, some articles on runxue have been blocked for “violation of relevant laws”. Netizens on GitHub said some Weibo and WeChat accounts displaying immigration advice had been shut down. On the Baidu search engine, search volume data on emigration-related terms is no longer publicly available.

“It’s not just what people do that shapes society. It is also where people imagine their future or a good life. Runxue says people imagine the good life is somewhere else, and that says a lot about Chinese society today,” said Heidi Ostbo Haugen, professor of Chinese studies at the University of Oslo.

“They’re always ready to go, and it changes something about how you live your life here and now,” she said.

For Zhu, a public relations manager in Beijing, the biggest hurdle in leaving is her husband, a traditional man for whom moving to Beijing from their hometown in Shandong was already a big ask. Recently, she nervously broached the subject of moving in with him. He didn’t immediately say no.

In the meantime, she’s trying to keep busy to avoid focusing on things like her kids spending their childhoods under pandemic restrictions, which is causing her insomnia.

“I just try to fill my job and my life as much as possible. Although I don’t like the current politics, who knows if it will get worse tomorrow?”

Kuo reported from Taipei and Li from Seoul.


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