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China’s middle class seeks to flee as Covid policies bite

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Beijing – Alan Li sees no future for his family in China after strict Covid rules decimated his business, upended his son’s education and left his country at odds with the rest of the world.

He has given up hope of a return to normal after months of closure in Shanghai, and is now considering closing his business and moving to Hungary, where he sees better opportunities and where his 13-year-old son can attend a international school.

“Our losses this year mean it’s over for us,” he wearily told AFP, asking not to reveal his real name.

“We used our own cash savings to pay 400 workers (during lockdown). What if it happened again this winter?

Shanghai’s long shutdown, which has led to food shortages and protests, has caused some to reconsider staying in a country where livelihoods and ways of life can disappear at the whim of the state.

Schools have been closed and exams cancelled, including assessments for applying to US universities.

Li is frustrated that his son’s expensive bilingual schooling has been mostly online for two years, and he worries about how Beijing has tightened surveillance of the program.

“It’s a loss of our children’s youth,” Li said.

Quite well off, he was able to benefit from a European investment program which granted him and his family residence in Budapest.

“A lot of people know that if they sold all their assets they could ‘fall flat’ in a European country,” he said, using a slang expression meaning to relax.

Guo Shize, a Beijing-based immigration consultant, told AFP his firm had seen an explosion in inquiries since March, including a threefold increase in the number of clients in Shanghai.

Even after the lockdown was eased, requests continued to come in at more than double the usual level.

“Once that spark has been ignited in people’s minds, it doesn’t go out quickly,” he said.

– Exit ban –

Censors have sought to suppress discussions of emigration, prompting nimble netizens to adopt the term “running” instead.

Searches for the term on messaging app WeChat peaked during the Shanghai lockdown.

But as more people consider ways to leave, Beijing has doubled down on its strict exit policies for Chinese citizens.

All “unnecessary” trips out of the country have been banned. Passport renewals have been virtually halted, with authorities blaming the risk of Covid being carried into the country.

In the first half of 2021, immigration authorities issued only 2% of passports issued during the same period in 2019.

A woman who emigrated to Germany told AFP she received dozens of messages from Chinese people seeking advice on how to escape.

Emily, who didn’t want to use her real name, tried to help a relative get a new passport to take up a job in Europe, but the request was denied.

“It’s like being a child who wants to go play with his friends but their parents won’t let them go,” she said, adding that she had heard of passports being sold for up to 30,000 yuan (4 500 dollars) on black. market.

– ‘Absolutely crazy’ –

A Chinese freelancer told AFP he was turned away by immigration officials as he tried to travel to Turkey for work last October, despite having already registered.

“My itinerary seemed too suspicious to them. They brought my passport to an office and 15 minutes later told me that I didn’t meet the conditions “to leave, he said on condition of anonymity. “It was completely crazy.

He managed to leave weeks later by entering semi-autonomous Macau with another travel document, before catching a connecting flight.

Some are disappointed with Beijing’s increasing controls, which have been tightened during the pandemic.

“I just want to live in a country where the government won’t grossly interfere in my personal life,” said Lucy, a 20-year-old student at an elite Beijing university involved in LGBTQ and Marxist activism.

Virus policies had “enabled the government to control and monitor everything”, she said.

“Maybe rather than accepting and adapting to this system, we need to go somewhere else and create a new life.”