In Shanghai, A Brewing Expat Exodus As COVID Crackdown Shows "Real" China
Not only strict rules of freedom of movement as part of Zero-COVID policy but also an increase in censorship has raised many questions for the expat population in the megacity of 26 million that had long enjoyed a kind of special status in China as a place of freedom and openness. A recent survey of foreigners in the Chinese megacity found that 48% of respondents said they would leave Shanghai within the next year.
SHANGHAI — On the seventh day of the lockdown, Félix, a French expat who has worked in Shanghai for four years, texted his boss: I want to "run,' mais je sais pas quand (but I don’t know when). A minute later, he received a reply: moi aussi (me too).
Félix had recently learned the new Mandarin word 润 (run) from social network postings of his local friends. Because its pinyin “rùn” is the same as the English word “run,” Chinese youth had begun to use it to express their wish to escape reality, either to “be freed from mundane life”, or to “run toward your future.”
For foreigners like Félix, by associating the expression “run” with the feeling of the current lockdown in Shanghai, “everything makes sense.” Félix recalled how at the end of March, the government denied rumors of an impending lockdown: “My Chinese colleagues all said, Shanghai is China’s top city, there would be no lockdown no matter what.”
Soon after, the megacity of 26 million, and China's most Western metropolis, was suddenly slammed shut: "It's not just a matter of going back on your word, it's a reflection of the government having no credibility."
The subsequent spate of medical crises, food shortages and hard lockdown policies made him want to flee, "run," from Shanghai like never before.
Open and tolerant reputation
According to China’s official statistics in 2021, there are more than 160,000 expats living in Shanghai, most of them working in finance, tech, internet and manufacturing. "(Shanghai is) the most open and tolerant city in China," says Wilson, a Scot who has lived in Shanghai for 17 years.
Having raised his children here, Wilson refers to Shanghai as "the Chinese city closest to the rest of the world."
"Everyone is extra concerned about the importance of regulations and people here take the law and the system much more seriously than anywhere else in China."
But now, the six-week-long lockdown has shifted the landscape of the city, and expats like Félix and Wilson are thinking of ways to flee this city they once loved so much.
Paris is also a cosmopolitan city, but Shanghai is more advanced.
Félix came to Shanghai in 2018, when he was 28. He works in a leading French tech company, with 40% of French employees in its Shanghai branch, and most of the Chinese employees with prestigious academic profiles and high levels of English and French. When human resources told him that he was going to work in Shanghai, "they said Shanghai is like the Paris of the East."
Félix set a goal to stay in Shanghai for at least 10 years. "Let's put it this way: if you stay in Shanghai for a long time and then go back to Paris, you'll feel like you've gone back to a primitive society," he said. "Paris is also a cosmopolitan city, but Shanghai is more advanced and can do everything much more quickly."
Félix referred to the word “new Shanghainese”, which originated from a governmental article in 2001, “New Shanghainese are global citizens, and Shanghai should be an international migrant city with a flexible flow of talents and cosmopolitanism.”
Lockdown and censorship
However, the lockdown and its harsh reality had made this city a strange place to both Félix and Wilson. Going through food shortages, they learned to tone down expectations of local authorities, and could only seek help from their Chinese friends and neighbors.
“The Zero-COVID policy is a serious affront to everyone’s normal life.” Félix claimed, “My foreign colleagues were hopeful that this kind of thing could never happen in Shanghai, but it did.” Felix decided to complain on WeChat, the most frequently used Chinese social networking app, posting pictures of neighborhoods and streets being guarded, with text mostly in French. But on April 8, he heard that an American in Shanghai had been “invited to tea” (a euphemism used when government authorities want to question you) for posting too much "negative information" on WeChat.
“I really want to gather all the people who think the lockdown is unreasonable and go to the authorities to ask them for an explanation." Félix thought, but not many like-minded could be found, even among the foreign expats. "My Chinese friends advised me to save it, saying 'you don't understand, it's not going to work'." Most of his foreign friends who had been in Shanghai for more than three years offered him more "practical" advice: "You're not allowed to go out on the streets here [in China]." One Belgian friend advised him to "put up with it" and "when the ban is lifted, we'll go back to Europe together."
Photo in the streets of Shanghai, under lockdown
A pointless operation
For Wilson and his family, they have experienced countless PCR and antigen tests. "It's a pointless operation," he says. "China's policy is to dynamically zero out infected cases, not save lives. It is more about restricting the freedom of residents, slaughtering pets, separating children from their parents, forcing residents into hospitals."
Wilson recalls being interviewed five years ago about being an expat who has settled into Shanghai, “I think China is a very interesting country and I really like the Chinese, they are reasonable and respectful. Above all, I have a lot of respect for the people of Shanghai and the way they fight to preserve their identity.“
But he's realized recently that the positive sentiments built up over 17 years could be undermined at any moment: a single concert could catch the attention of the police, a single retweet can get you noticed by public security, and a single policy can make homeless people freeze and ordinary people starve.
"It is self-evident to us foreigners that public opinion is constantly being tightened in China. I can't give specific examples, but everyone knows that the cost of communication and the risk, is much greater nowadays than when I first came to Shanghai," Wilson said.
Félix agrees: “Most of my Chinese friends are aware of the blind, ineffective and unscientific nature of the Zero-COVID policy, but choose to remain silent. This is closely related to the overall climate of public opinion in China.” The decay is also manifesting itself in the recent development in Chinese media, where criticism towards the Western system, culture and ideology had to be present, and the rhetoric has to be “the West will lose.”
Leaving Shanghai: there is no way back
In mid-April, "This is Shanghai," a platform owned by HK Focus Media, conducted a survey of 950 foreigners living in Shanghai and found that the number of foreigners in the city may be reduced by half in the coming year, with 48% of respondents said they would leave Shanghai within the next year, if not immediately, while 37% said they would stay until the pandemic was over and see if the situation in Shanghai would improve before deciding whether to stay or go.
According to "This is Shanghai", foreigners in China have a high level of education in general, with 55% of respondents having a postgraduate degree or higher.
You realize it is suspended drama.
Félix intended to “run” as well. Due to its growth in recent years, it is unlikely that his company will exit the Chinese market, but he himself "definitely wants to go." He said he would consider moving to Vietnam, where French is spoken and a society-wide reform is underway.
As the lockdown progressed, he began to reflect on his work and life in Shanghai. “Having a cup of coffee and a chat over literature and art under the sycamore trees in this international city was a common pleasure, but I realize now that it's actually a suspended drama — it looks beautiful, but at any moment it could all collapse and make you fall back into reality as you are met with an iron fist."
For Wilson, who has been here longer, there's no denying that the COVID policy has devastated the vitality of this international metropolis. "China’s governors always see Shanghai as a city in the first echelon of global cities," he said. "But if you have to comply with something like the Zero-COVID policy, you see that it comes with costs. And not only is it breaking down the trust of foreign talents, but is also undermining the goodwill of the world towards China."
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