The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What we can learn from the people who are voting with their feet

Cars line up at the border crossing at Verkhny Lars between Russia and Georgia on Sept. 29. (AP)

It has long been a truism that if you want to know how people feel about a government and its policies, just open the borders. Then see whether people flood in or flee out.

Russians started fleeing in droves after President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. Now, his order of a partial military mobilization to help prop up his flagging military has prompted another surge of departures. More than 260,000 Russians, mostly men, have fled to neighboring Finland, Georgia and Kazakhstan by almost any means of transport, to avoid having to fight in an increasingly unpopular war. Some estimate the total outflow since the start of the war at 400,000.

In China, Beijing’s Communist authorities have imposed some of the most stringent travel controls in years to prevent its citizens from fleeing. Citing the “great security risk” of the covid-19 pandemic, China has stopped issuing passports for “non-essential” travel outside China, essentially banning all leisure travel. Chinese hoping to flee the country’s draconian pandemic controls and lockdowns have resorted to using shady online agents offering fake overseas job offers or bogus university acceptance letters.

China’s financial hub, Shanghai, has also been seeing an exodus, with many citizens and expats fleeing after the city finally lifted its harsh two-month spring lockdown. Many longtime foreign residents called it quits, fearing another lockdown under China’s unrelenting “zero covid” policy. An airline pilot for a European carrier described for me recently arriving in Shanghai with a near-empty flight and then leaving with a jam-packed plane full of locals and foreigners getting out.

So many people are looking to leave that the phenomenon even has an internet name, “run xue,” or run philosophy in English.

And then there’s Hong Kong.

This former British colony this year recorded its biggest year-on-year population drop since record-keeping began in 1961. Some 113,000 residents left from midsummer 2021 to July of this year, marking a dramatic 1.6 percent population decline. And that comes on top of a nearly 90,000-person decline in 2020-21, and a 20,900 drop the year before.

It’s not just the numbers of people leaving, but who they are that is most troubling for the long term. Those departing are educated professionals, people in the financial and business sectors, middle-class families with school-age children, and expatriate businesspeople, including many Americans, who have long called Hong Kong home. Some 4,000 schoolteachers have left. So many children have made the exodus that officials are talking about closing or consolidating some kindergartens and primary schools.

With departures so high, the website Sassy Hong Kong has run special features like a “practical to-do list” for those planning to depart and 20 ideas to buy as farewell gifts.

The reasons for the exodus are varied, including push and pull factors.

The most often cited push is the city’s tough anti-covid policies that have adhered closely to the mainland’s approach. Hong Kong only recently eliminated its requirement that all incoming travelers submit to a costly and debilitating hotel quarantine that was for months as long as 21 days and earlier this year reduced to three days.

Hong Kong is one of the last major cities that still requires everyone to wear a face mask even outdoors. Live music is banned in small venues, and outdoor barbecue sites and campsites remain closed. Even children as young as 5 are now required to have an electronic vaccine pass to enter restaurants, swimming pools, libraries and other public facilities. Schools suspend classes any time the number of covid cases reaches 10 percent, causing severe disruptions to schools and families.

Besides the anti-pandemic regime, the other major reason people are leaving is the imposition of the national security law in 2020 and Beijing’s tightening grip on this once freewheeling city.

Public schools have been ordered to scrap “liberal studies,” which are blamed for leading to Western-style free thinking and fomenting the 2019 protests. Instead, the government is instilling more mainland-style patriotic education in classrooms. University student unions have been largely disbanded, but student teams now compete for flag-raising awards as a way to promote national education and loyalty to China. Many families with children say the school changes are their main motivation to leave.

The key pull factor is the ease Hong Kong citizens have been getting visas to Britain, Canada, Australia and the United States after the security law was implemented.

Government officials regularly try to play down the exodus, insisting the city has long seen population fluctuations, that people will return once the covid restrictions are eliminated and once departing residents realize that Hong Kong still boasts competitive advantages over popular destinations such as Britain and Singapore.

When Hong Kong on Sept. 26 finally dropped its dreaded hotel quarantine rule, so many travel-starved Hong Kongers raced to book flights that the Cathay Pacific airline website and switchboard were overwhelmed. But there has been no commensurate upsurge of incoming visitors taking advantage of the relaxed requirements.

Whether it’s Russians, Chinese or Hong Kongers, the numbers don’t lie. People tend to vote with their feet. And it’s hard to see the trends reversing before the governments’ policies do.