The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Zero covid’ has many in China dreaming of leaving

Zhu Aitao visits her alma mater, Leeds University, in England in 2019 on her last international trip before the pandemic. (Zhu Aitao)
9 min

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

The 35-year-old, originally from China’s Shandong province, lives in the richest district of Beijing with her husband — her high school sweetheart — and their two young children. They own their home and two cars, a BMW and a Lexus. They both have stable jobs: Zhu manages public relations at a multinational auto company, while her husband writes for a government-owned journal.

Sick of their lives being dictated by pandemic measures — the frequent and sudden lockdowns, never-ending rounds of mass testing and constant uncertainty — Zhu hopes to move her family to Thailand as soon as possible and eventually immigrate to Europe or the United States.

Skip to end of carousel
Across China, a weekend of mass protests broke out in cities and on campuses against the government’s unpopular “zero covid” policy. Local security officials on Monday clamped down on citizens defying threats of reprisal, including some who used blank sheets of paper to get their message across.
‘Zero covid’
“Zero covid” attempts to keep coronavirus cases as close to zero as possible. For nearly three years, China has persisted with the policy, despite the economic and human costs, that’s left a vast population without natural immunity. Here’s what to know about the policy and how it triggered recent protests.
The human toll
Many have blamed the government’s draconian rules for delaying emergency response to tragedies including a fatal fire that killed 10 and a deadly bus crash. In Shanghai, a nurse died of an asthma attack after being refused admittance to her own hospital. “Zero covid” lockdowns have left people pleading for food and medical care.


End of carousel

“I feel like I’m having an emotional breakdown,” she said. “I feel powerless. It’s like an overbearing father telling you that this is all for your own sake. You just need to listen. Don’t ask questions.”

Zhu is one of a growing number of Chinese urban professionals subscribing to a new school of thought known as runxue, the study of how to “run” away from their home country. For many like Zhu, it is not just about China’s severe “zero covid” policy, but what the future looks like in a society where politics — upholding the top leader’s policies no matter the cost — trumps science and the well-being of residents whose day-to-day lives are subject to ever more state interference.

Xi’s strict covid policies prompt rumblings of discontent in China

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

Inquiries into emigrating have surged since chaotic lockdown measures were imposed in April on China’s most populous city, Shanghai, where residents 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,” soon gained momentum online among disaffected 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 “unswerving” adherence to zero covid, searches for “emigration” on the social media platform WeChat surged more than 400 percent from a day earlier and again by almost 500 percent on May 17 as restrictions continued. Searches for requirements for immigrating to Canada and Malaysia, as well as the question “good immigration destinations,” increased twentyfold between the end of March and early April, according to Baidu data.

Watching from afar, Luna Liu, a PhD candidate in England at the University of London who is originally from Tianjin, posted on the forum Douban that she would give free advice to anyone hoping to move to Britain. She now has appointments booked until November, with a half-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 lockdown of Shanghai, those illusions were shattered. They realized that if they want to live freely, they have to get out of there,” Liu said.

Shanghai’s covid siege: Food shortages, talking robots, starving animals

While runxue has not triggered 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 China’s openness as the country turns increasingly inward.

A joke often seen online is that stressed-out urbanites have three options. They can continue to struggle in the rat race of Chinese society, making little progress in an approach known as neijuan, or “involution,” the process of turning inward in a self-defeating competition with others. Others may choose to opt out of a life of striving and instead tangping, or “lie flat.” Now, those with means can choose to emigrate, or “run.”

Young Chinese take a stand against pressures of modern life — by lying down

“This is definitely not a normal phenomenon, nor is it something that would be widely talked about in a healthy society,” said Li Nuo, 45, from Hebei province, who obtained permanent residency in Japan last year and now runs an e-commerce company in Osaka. Recently, he has been helping friends and family trying to leave China.

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

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

Joy Zhou, 23, who works at a nongovernmental organization in Beijing, plans to move to Canada in the next year or two to study and hopes to establish permanent residency there. Zhou started thinking about moving 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 with about 80 percent 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 without a doubt backwards. People seem to have learned to cope with living in an unreasonable system, but will our lives ever become better?”

While many talk about leaving, few will actually 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 inquires in the first four months of this year than in the whole of 2021.

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

Still, internet users, both older and younger, post extensive and detailed articles about the logistics and technicalities of emigrating 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 vent.

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

Stranded in their own homes: Portraits of Shanghai’s lockdown

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

Now, as authorities work to attract talent and prevent a brain drain in the face of a shrinking and aging population, some worry that emigration will once again become politicized. Over the past two years, authorities have issued fewer passports and restricted outbound travel in the name of covid measures.

Last year, China issued 630,000 passports, compared with an average of 10.8 million annually from 2002 to 2017. In May, the National Immigration Administration said it would continue to “strictly restrict the nonessential departures” of Chinese citizens.

On social media, internet users have posted accounts of their passports being taken by employers or foreign residency cards and passports getting cut up by border officials. The immigration authority in May denied that passports had been halted or that residency certificates had been invalidated.

China shuts down talk of covid hardship; users strike back

While censors do not appear to be heavily moderating the online discussion of runxue, authorities are likely to be concerned about an ideology that promotes abandoning the country. On WeChat, some articles on runxue were blocked for “violating relevant laws.” Internet users on GitHub said some Weibo and WeChat accounts posting immigration tips had been shuttered. On the search engine Baidu, data for search volume on terms related to emigration is no longer available to the public.

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

“They are always ready to leave, and that does something to how you live your life here and now,” she said.

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

In the meantime, she tries to stay busy to avoid focusing on things like her children spending their childhood under pandemic restrictions, something that causes her insomnia.

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

Kuo reported from Taipei and Li from Seoul.