Chinese search escape routes online as Xi set to continue in power

By Álvaro Alfaro

Beijing, Oct 18 (EFE).- Discontent over China’s strict “zero Covid” policy and the political trajectory of the country have led to a growing number of citizens seeking information online over how to emigrate.

During the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, in which President Xi Jinping is widely expected to renew his presidency for a third term – unprecedented in recent history – some Chinese are paying more attention to the paperwork required to settle abroad than the ongoing discussions in the ruling party.

It is not an easy task, because since March 2020 China has applied strict border controls – along with banning international tourism – based on the principle of “not leaving the country without need,” including obstacles in getting new passports and a ban on travel except for work, family reunions, studies or health.

Nicole, a former Shanghai resident who spoke to EFE from France, began to consider emigrating years ago, when she had been working as a journalist and her content was “censored or removed all the time.”

In the spring this year, Shanghai faced the worst Covid outbreak in the country since the initial Wuhan epidemic, and authorities imposed a lockdown that lasted for almost two months and resulted in disruptions in food supply and access to medical services in the city of over 20 million people.

Nicole managed to move to Europe after the lockdown, which “violated human rights,” she alleged.

“People died due to not getting medical attention. It goes against how a comfortable life in a developed megacity should be like,” she said.

The former Shanghai resident adds that the lockdown led to many people giving up the belief that they enjoyed basic securities in China and that they can “invest their money and future there.”

“Before 2020, there were no questions at passport control. But when I left, they were asking the passengers about the purpose of their trip and if they aimed to return,” she said.

Since then, major Chinese cities have increased controls and established the practice of normalized PCR testing, in which residents have to undergo PCR tests every 72 hours to enter public places.

Since the spring, Chinese social networks have seen a Chinese character, which can be phonetically transcribed as “run,” trending. The character is used to convey the sense of emigrating or leaving.

“Almost all the people I know in Shanghai have plans to leave in the coming months or years,” Nicole confirmed.

The keyword is similar to searches on Baidu – the Chinese equivalent of Google – about leaving the country or studying abroad, whose popularity had fallen in 2020 as China managed to check the pandemic even as it spread rapidly across the world.

At the time, there was a reverse trend of Chinese residents overseas seeking ways to return despite high ticket prices, as life was relatively normal in the Asian country even as pandemic death tolls mounted across the world.

In Douyin, a vide-sharing platform like TikTok, a search with “run” fetches numerous videos by Chinese people who managed to leave, recounting their experiences and offering emigration advise.

Searches for the word “emigrate” on Douyin have surged 330 percent in the past year, compared to the year before.

In another social network, Weibo, “if the pandemic does not leave, I will,” has become a popular catchphrase, along with the nationalist response that tells all those “who glorify any other country except their own” to get lost.

China has continued its “zero Covid” policy that includes PCR testing drives, lockdowns wherever cases are detected and isolation for all the infected people and their close contacts.

“In China, now everything revolves around Covid. Where do our dreams stand? Who would like to open a business at this time” complained Nicole, who said she would not return to her home country unless “an open environment” is guaranteed and “human rights are put above the zero-Covid policy.”

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