An increasing number of young Chinese elites have recently sought new opportunities for their families in another country. Their destinations vary, but they all are hoping to leave as soon as possible. Pressures of life in China from high housing prices, fierce employment competition, lack of work-life balance to Covid strict quarantine measures with mass testing, and insecure political and social environments all contributed to the “runology” trend.
The term went viral at the beginning of April when Shanghai was placed under lockdown, and residents were confined to their homes with limited access to food and healthcare. On April 3, the same day the government reiterated its “Zero-COVID” policy, the number of searches for “immigration” increased by 440% on WeChat. Canada being the most popular destination, Tencent reported that the phrase “conditions for moving to Canada” increased 2846% in the week of March 28 to April 3. The number of inquiries to immigration consultancies has also skyrocketed in the past month. As the term has grown in popularity, “runology” became no longer just a synonym for “emigration” but a study of why, where, and how to run away.
35-year-old Zhu Aitao from Shandong Province is an example of China’s mid-class looking for an opportunity to settle abroad. She owns a house in the most affluent area in Beijing and has a stable job and good income. However, sudden lockdown and frequent and endless nucleic acid testing negatively impacted her life. She said, “I feel my emotions have collapsed.”
According to Xiang Biao, director of immigration at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany, “It’s a kind of migration driven by shattered dreams.” “People are not escaping the plague; people are escaping this top-down policy and disregard for personal affection and dignity.”
Luna Liu, a Ph.D. student at the University of London UK, offered free advice to anyone looking to move to the UK. Her consultation appointments are booked until November, with many others on the waiting list. She said, “I can sense that many of the people I spoke to had had illusions about the system in China. After Shanghai was ‘zeroed out,’ these illusions were shattered. They realized that if they want to live freely, they have to get out of there.”
Li Nuo, a 45-year-old from Hebei province, who has relocated to Japan, talked about immigration. “It’s not a normal phenomenon, and it’s not something that would be widely talked about in a healthy society.”
Zhou Yue, 23, who works for an NGO in Beijing, voiced her reasons for moving abroad, “Leaving is not just to avoid this pandemic,” she said, citing her concerns about women’s rights, working conditions, and free speech.
According to data from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), under Xi Jinping, the number of Chinese asylum-seekers has shot up. Between 2012 and 2020, the annual number of asylum-seekers from China rose from 15,362 to 107,864. Many Chinese people have always wanted to relocate, and the Shanghai event only pushed them into action. Freedom, not necessarily politically but at least physically, is becoming an important index of how people evaluate their lives.