After two years of border restrictions and lockdowns, some Chinese citizens contemplate emigration

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

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, according to a report by Wall Street Journal.

Stringent lockdown

The strict lockdown of the city — now in its seventh week, but lifted and reinforced at times to the frustration of residents — is part of the ruling Communist Party’s “zero-COVID” policy that has exacted a mounting economic toll and that even the World Health Organization says may be unsustainable.

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 US, where her employer is based.

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.”

The goal in Shanghai is to achieve “elimination in society,” meaning any new cases would only be in people already in isolation, Vice Mayor Wu Qing said at a news conference. That would allow an “orderly opening, limited (population) flow, and differentiated management,” Wu said.

No exact date beyond the middle of the month was given, nor did Wu say how the reopening would occur except that the city intends to gradually restore industrial production, education and medical services.

Shanghai officials have made similar assurances in the past, only for restrictions to return even as cases wane in the city of 25 million people.

Complaints about food shortages and other hardships and videos posted online showing people in Shanghai and other areas arguing with police have been deleted by censors.

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 15 March, Chinese users searched or shared content involving yimin 16 million times, according to WeChat’s publicly available data. A month later, on 15 April, 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, according to the Wall Street Journal report.

Not so easy

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 notarisations for immigration-related purposes, especially asset notarisations for those trying to emigrate through investment immigration programmes, according to a US-based immigration lawyer and an Australia-based immigration agent.

Already highly limited rights to privacy, free speech and personal autonomy have been further restricted in the name of fighting the pandemic. China’s borders have been largely closed for more than two years, and this week the government said it would tighten restrictions on outbound travel by Chinese citizens and increase scrutiny over the issuance of passports.

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.”

At a meeting last week, the party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee said it was committed to “resolutely fighting any attempts to distort, question or dismiss China’s anti-COVID policy.”

“In the face of mounting uncertainties due to COVID-19, one thing remains certain — China will stick to its dynamic zero-COVID policy that has proven pragmatic and effective,” the official Xinhua News Agency said in an editorial.

With inputs from agencies

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