As COVID-19 lockdowns continue, more young people are looking for ways out of China
Shanghai resident Yann Zhang has been searching for a way out of China for months.
“I can’t see when these pandemic measures based on the ‘COVID-zero’ concept will stop and feel scared and anxious every day,” the 29-year-old told the ABC.
“Society is feeling increasingly strained. The censorship has been intensified, with [social media] posts being taken down and accounts being blocked very often.
“It’s all eroding young people’s faith in a better future.
Mr Zhang is one of a growing number of young Chinese unhappy with the country’s direction and looking for a way out.
Online the movement has been labelled “run xue”, or “run philosophy”.
“My neighbours have also started chatting about run philosophy. Everyone wishes to flee,” one Weibo user said.
“It’s no surprise run philosophy is so popular,” said another.
“At the very least, those in other countries can leave like a normal human.”
Two Australian migration agents told the ABC the number of inquiries from Chinese clients had more than doubled since April, with the majority coming from Shanghai.
Kirk Yan, a migration agent based in Melbourne, said he was receiving “between 200 and 300 migration inquiries from China” per month.
This time last year he was getting about 100 per month.
“One-third of them are from Shanghai, followed by Beijing and Shenzhen,” Mr Yan said.
“Quite a few of them are skilled migrants aged between 25 and 35 who don’t have families,” he said, adding that many were technology professionals.
Mr Zhang said he wanted to move to a country that was more liveable and easier to obtain residency in, and Australia fit the bill.
However, he said he was worried China was making it harder for citizens to leave the country.
A spokesperson from China’s National Immigration Bureau this week warned individuals to avoid “non-essential” and “non-emergency” travel because international travel still carried “high risk and uncertainty”.
The government has also said it would continue to “tighten the approval and issuance of travel documents”, including passports.
Mr Zhang said he was anxious because his passport was due to expire in a year.
“My current plan is to leave next year so I’ve got a year to prepare,” he said.
Losing young talent ‘biggest threat’ to China’s economic future
Shanghai has been under varying levels of restrictions, including total lockdown, since late March.
While local authorities said earlier this month that restrictions in some areas would be relaxed, residents were still required to stay in their districts and could only travel for grocery shopping or medical services.
Meanwhile in Beijing, six of the most populous districts have been asked to work from home, and restaurants have closed dine-in services to limit the spread of an outbreak there.
A spokesperson from China’s National Health Commission said to “detect potential risks earlier”, the government planned to build more test stations in China’s major cities so everyone had one “within a 15-minute walk”.
The authority also plans to build more quarantine facilities across the country, sparking speculation on social media that the COVID-zero approach was not ending anytime soon.
The lockdown in Shanghai, one of China’s most important economic hubs, appears to be having a significant impact on the national economy.
State media outlet Guancha reported earlier this month that only 23.1 per cent of 10 million recent college graduates had found jobs.
That compares to a rate of more than 90 per cent in 2020, according to data from the Ministry of Education.
Meanwhile, the National Bureau of Statistics this month reported an 11.1 per cent drop in retail sales compared to a year ago.
Shi Heling from Monash University’s Department of Economics said many Chinese were “struggling with their basic needs for living”.
“The COVID-zero policy is a very big blow to the Chinese economy,” he said.
Dr Shi said losing such talent was “the biggest threat to China’s long-term economic development”.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has made it clear the country will maintain the COVID-zero policy and “resolutely fight against all distortions, doubts, and denials”.
But Dr Shi said continuing to isolate itself from the rest of the world would likely provoke even more anger in Chinese society.
“I believe the Chinese government should also take this into account,” he said.
“Otherwise, it will result in a series of social issues.”
How might an exodus from China affect Australia?
With Australian workers enjoying historically low unemployment, China’s loss could be beneficial for Australia’s economy, according to Dr Shi.
Unemployment, at 3.9 per cent, is the lowest in Australia since 1974.
“From Australia’s perspective, there is a significant labour shortage, and the biggest challenge for people running businesses is that they can’t find staff,” Dr Shi said.
“Therefore, this inflow of Chinese migrants will undoubtedly bring some new workers into the Australian labour market, which will be very helpful to the Australian economy.”
One of the Australian employers struggling to find workers is John McVicker, the owner of Sydney IT engineering company Best Technology Service.
Mr McVicker said that in the 20 years he’s been in business, he’s never found it so hard to find workers.
“It is becoming increasingly difficult to source experienced IT professionals.”
He said more skilled migrants would “definitely help”.
“It was the shortage in skilled migration during COVID that in my view has created, or at the very least, exacerbated this situation,” he said.