Foreigners living in China who stuck it out through three years of strict Covid controls have spoken about why they finally decided to leave the country last year despite efforts to reopen to the outside world.
Some spoke of an increasing wariness, even hostility, towards foreigners while others said they were worried about a repeat of their lockdown experiences.
Their exits come against a backdrop of heightened tensions between China and the West, which some suspect may be influencing everyday attitudes towards them, and a heightened focus on national security that emphasises the threat from malign foreign forces.
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For Sophie Redding, a British PE teacher at an international school in Wuhan, the city where the coronavirus was first detected, multiple factors played a part in her decision to return to Britain last month.
Her partner, who was also in Wuhan, encountered visa problems, and she started to feel that the city she once regarded as “home” had become “less welcoming”.
“All of a sudden, strangers would start telling me to go home. People would see me in a lift and wait for the next one. When DiDi [a ride-hailing app] drivers I ordered arrived and realised I was a foreigner, they’d refuse to take me,” the 30-year-old said.
Sophie Redding, who worked as a PE teacher in Wuhan, says she felt the city once regarded as “home” had become “less welcoming”. Photo: Sophie Redding alt=Sophie Redding, who worked as a PE teacher in Wuhan, says she felt the city once regarded as “home” had become “less welcoming”. Photo: Sophie Redding>
Redding said things had eased after the pandemic, but her experience has left her with the feeling of being treated as an outsider.
“I still have a load of fantastic friends in Wuhan and across China. That’s why I stayed so long … but all those small outlier conversations and interactions kind of wear you down, and it’s started to weigh off against all the great things about living in China,” she said.
China had already seen an exodus of foreigners during the three years of the coronavirus pandemic, owing to frustrations about the country’s strict anti-Covid policy that saw severe restrictions placed on domestic and international travel and included a months-long lockdown in Shanghai, the city with the largest international population.
In the decade leading up to November 2020, the first year of the pandemic, the number of foreigners living in Shanghai fell by more than 20 per cent to 164,000, and by 40 per cent in Beijing to 63,000, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics.
Although these are the latest available figures, two more years of strict pandemic controls are expected to have led to more foreign residents leaving.
And while the latest stories from foreigners who have left in the past year are strictly anecdotal, they do suggest that China is going to struggle to attract both individuals and companies from abroad.
Redding is not the only China-based foreigner to sense an increasing chilliness towards outsiders.
James Campion, a British translator and proofreader who left China last July, said he sensed a subtle shift in Chinese people’s attitudes and found it was becoming harder to make new friends.
“It wasn’t as easy to strike up conversations, and there seemed to be a subtle hesitation from some locals, perhaps reflecting a growing awareness of geopolitical tensions,” he said.
Other scars from the zero-Covid era continue to linger. One Russian-born art teacher from the United States who left Shanghai after 13 years said her decision to return to America was largely driven by concerns that the authorities could again impose strict controls on people’s movements and activities.
“I like Chinese people. I like Chinese food. I like a lot of things. I grew up in Russia, in pretty much the same system. We have a lot of similarities and I understand them,” the woman in her sixties, who asked to be identified only as M, said.
“But I don’t think there’s a guarantee that [this] is not going to happen again. Because you can just be locked [down] in the same way.
“People are afraid to repeat the same experience. Nobody wants to stay away from their family for three years. That’s a long time. Who knows if there’ll be another Covid?”
James Zimmerman, a partner at the international law firm Perkins Coie and former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, said the factors behind individual departures – which he described as “a combination of a weak economy, compliance risks, and geopolitical tensions” – were also driving away businesses.
He said: “While China is potentially a large and attractive consumer market, foreign business is rethinking whether to remain or expand in the market as a result of a host of geopolitical issues.”
The Covid pandemic prompted a number of companies that had relied on Chinese manufacturers to start diversifying their supply chains by seeking alternatives in other countries.
He added: “Separate from geopolitical tensions, foreign business has lost much faith in Beijing’s ability to manage the business environment and economy, ranging from an unworkable reaction to the pandemic by putting into place unreasonable restrictions that adversely affected supply chains, an environment where an emphasis on national security overrides common sense, and an inability to address downward trends in China’s economy such as the real property meltdown that remains in free fall.”
Beijing has been trying to counter such concerns and released a new set of guidelines last August to woo foreign investors. These included pledges to protect intellectual property rights, relax the rules on visas and residency, and offer temporary tax exemptions for foreigners who reinvest their profits in China.
Shanghai is the Chinese city with the largest number of foreign residents. Photo: Xinhua alt=Shanghai is the Chinese city with the largest number of foreign residents. Photo: Xinhua>
But Zimmerman said he anticipated “an accelerated level of strategic reshoring, nearshoring, or offshoring to more friendly countries”, if these concerns continued.
“Policies directed at retaining the expatriate community should keep in mind the bigger issues as noted above. No tax break or preferential treatment will bring them back if the bigger picture issues are not addressed,” he said.
Wang Huiyao, founder and president of the Beijing-based think tank Centre for China and Globalisation, said some of these concerns could be addressed by easing visa policies or even residency requirements.
“China may consider relaxing its ‘green card’ policy for outstanding foreign talent, such as those with special contributions or who are innovative entrepreneurs,” he said.
“The country could also consider allowing international students to take internships in China and universities could offer more English language programmes to attract overseas students.”
He also suggested recent moves to make tourist and business travel easier – including a year’s visa-free travel for citizens of Malaysia and five European countries – could be expanded to the US, Japan, South Korea and other parts of Europe to create a more general “welcoming atmosphere”.
“Now that many overseas [news] channels are available in some hotels, can we take it a step further and allow foreigners to use the hotel’s internet to access overseas websites smoothly? This will help to further increase their attachment to China,” he said.
“By leveraging the resources of enterprises, universities and NGOs, the country can also invite more foreigners to China and promote people-to-people exchanges with the outside world.”
China issued a basket of new policies to relax entry and visa procedures on Thursday in a bid to draw more overseas visitors and restore people-to-people exchanges.
The new rules, which were released by the National Immigration Administration and took effect immediately, aim to ease eligibility requirements for entry visas, waive border inspections for transit at certain airports, and streamline application procedures for entry visas, extensions of stay and multiple-entry permits.
Chinese President Xi Jinping recently said Beijing was ready to invite 50,000 young Americans to join exchange and study programmes over the next five years – but this follows a dramatic fall of more than 98 per cent in the number of American students.
The number plummeted from 11,639 in the 2018-19 academic year to just 211 in 2021-22, according to the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors database.
Statistics from China’s Ministry of Education showed that after peaking in 2019, the number of foreign students in the country’s higher education institutions fell by over 20 per cent to 255,720 in 2021.
There has been an increasing focus on the number of students from developing countries coming to China. Students from countries that have joined the Belt and Road Initiative now account for more than half the international students in China, according to the state-run Guangming Daily.
But many of these foreign graduates struggle to find a job that will allow them to stay even if they do secure a work visa.
“After graduation, my life became a hassle. The requirements of getting a work permit are not very attainable as a new graduate and as a Nigerian,” said Annie Akinnuoye, 22.
Akinnuoye spent four years studying at a Chinese university and a further year working in the country, but was forced to leave in July because she could not find a suitable job that met her work visa’s requirements.
Akinnuoye said she worked in the trade in human hair for wig makers in her home country after graduation and even tried to start her own business, but none of these endeavours worked out.
“Being a self-funded student for four years had financially drained me, and I had hoped for a stable job to lean on for my stay in China. This was the main reason I left China,” she said.
Annie Akinnuoye has had to return to Nigeria despite her desire to remain in China. Credit: Annie Akinnuoye alt=Annie Akinnuoye has had to return to Nigeria despite her desire to remain in China. Credit: Annie Akinnuoye>
A Shanghai-based visa counsellor with more than a decade of experience said that for foreigners who wanted to stay in China, the overall environment and review processes had become stricter because of security concerns. But the demand for visas to China remained high and was continuing to rise.
“Our company receives hundreds of inquiries for visa applications to China every day. Most of them are foreigners from African and Central Asian countries,” he said.
“It’s a matter of being inside or outside the circle. Many foreigners in China may find this country bad or uncomfortable and choose to leave. But more foreigners, especially from developing countries, see China as an opportunity and want to come here.”
This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2024 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
Copyright (c) 2024. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.