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So many people are looking to leave China that it's been dubbed the run movement

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Millions of Chinese citizens feel crushed by COVID lockdowns and growing political controls, and many are exploring options to leave China altogether. NPR's Emily Feng reports.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: By all accounts, K.C. had a pretty sweet deal. He'd made a comfortable living importing frozen food. And even when the coronavirus first hit, he considered himself blessed to be in China.

KC: (Through interpreter) In 2018, our business in China had expanded to overtake our American operations. China was a better place to do business.

FENG: But then China began blaming outbreaks of COVID on infected packaging from imported food. The WHO says there's no evidence this can happen, but that didn't help K.C.

KC: (Through interpreter) We had to stop our operations completely. Our businesses are shut down, and we're trying to transition.

FENG: NPR met him in a long line at a consular station in Beijing that processes Canadian and European visas. Emigrating is a politically sensitive topic in China, which is why we're not using people's full names in this story and even distorting some of their voices. Bringing COVID down to zero cases at the cost of the economy - for K.C., that broke the social contract he had with China - accepting political controls in exchange for a comfortable life. So he's leaving.

In the U.S., immigration lawyer Ying Cao says she's gotten a 50% increase in immigration inquiries from China since the Shanghai lockdown.

YING CAO: I think it's the feeling of uncertainty. The first is Shanghai, and now it's Beijing.

FENG: Online searches for the term emigration have surged. So many people are looking to flee China, the Chinese internet has dubbed this the run movement, a Chinese word meaning moist to throw off censors but is conveniently spelled R-U-N - run.

For many, it's not about seeking better economic opportunity. It's about finding a place with more freedom.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And I know how, like, this government or this, like, centralized approach has always been permeating through every layer of the society. Yeah, so it really broke my illusion.

FENG: This woman is hoping to make it to Canada, where she also went to university. She works for a Chinese state company, so we're not using her name because she fears retribution if they know she's trying to leave China. Like many, she is troubled by draconian lockdowns in Shanghai that have shut people in their own homes for seven weeks and counting.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Right now, I feel like China has really crossed the balance. And they've really been too severe, to the point of violating human rights, violating their freedom of movement and freedom of speech.

FENG: But those who want to leave must navigate a complex maze of legal hurdles, starting in China. Ying Cao, the lawyer, says the government is trying to stop people from moving. Some cities are not allowing people to even notarize marriage or birth certificates needed to apply for visas. And the government says it is not issuing passports to its own citizens for most travel anymore.

CAO: Recently, there is some rule change. For non-critical things, they don't recommend people to get a new passport or get their current passport renewed or get notarizations.

FENG: Ying says she has not seen immigration controls to leave China so strict in decades and fears soon China will cut off all outbound emigration completely.

CAO: I mean, the door are gradually closing. It's pretty scary.

FENG: One Beijing-based computer scientist was among those waiting in line for a Canadian visa after months of indecision.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) I've been following a repository on programming site GitHub called run, or run, and learning how to leave. Immigration is a long-term plan. You don't make such a decision lightly. You need to be strategic about your future.

FENG: His first choice was actually the U.S. It's his dream to work in Silicon Valley. But he attended a Chinese military-linked university now sanctioned by the U.S. government, blocking him from getting a U.S. visa, so Canada it is. My producer, Aowen Cao, asks him why he wants to leave China so badly.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) We have a saying here in China. One can survive on eating feces, but why would you want to live such a life?

FENG: Right now, this outflow of people is a China-specific problem. But as more people leave, fleeing lockdowns or political repression, the run movement will become global. Outside China is a growing cohort of ethnic Chinese increasingly critical of China's ruling Communist Party, finally free to speak their minds. And inside China, a more compliant population is left behind, unwilling or unable to speak out.

Emily Feng, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.