Yearning to breathe free, middle-class Chinese are emigrating

  • Article by: THE ECONOMIST
  • Updated: April 28, 2014 - 5:44 PM

More of the middle class in China is leaving, in search of cleaner, slower lifestyles elsewhere.

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A man wearing a mask visited Jingshan Park in Beijing in February. At the time, nearly 15 percent of China’s total land mass was reportedly covered by persistent smog. Pollution is one factor prompting significant numbers of Chinese to move abroad.

Photo: China Foto Press via Getty Images,

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For years, Lin Chen resisted his wife’s entreaties to move abroad. Then, when their daughter was born in 2012, he started thinking about her schooling. He realized he wanted a less stressful education than the one he and his wife endured in their climb to the middle classes, and he wanted to leave space for fun.

“My wife and I suffered a lot,” he said. “I don’t want my daughter to suffer through all that.”

And so the Lin family will soon be off to Adelaide, Australia, part of the greatest and most consequential wave of emigration in modern Chinese history: middle-class Chinese seeking not better opportunities or political freedoms but a better quality of life. Chinese emigrants are leaving good jobs, cashing out their high-priced homes (or investment properties) and leaving China’s rat race behind. They are unlikely to find better jobs anywhere else, but the air and water are less polluted where they are going, the social safety net less frayed and the food safer to eat. And there is no one-child policy.

Not everyone who obtains a green card abroad wants to leave China. Some are global travelers who want a more convenient passport for border crossings. Some want an emergency-exit hatch should the Chinese economy get into trouble or the police come knocking. But many others are going for good, and unlike past waves of Chinese emigrants, they include accomplished midcareer professionals who have little to gain financially by leaving.

The raw numbers, though impressive, are small as a percentage of the Chinese population. But they are big enough to make a splash on arrival abroad. In the past decade 1 million Chinese have obtained permanent-resident status in Canada or America, placing Chinese migrants first in Canada and second in America behind Mexicans. And the pace has quickened. About 80,000 Chinese every year are gaining permanent residency in America, almost five times the rate of the 1980s. Chinese also made up the largest group of immigrants in Australia, with 80,000 arriving in the three years up to 2012.

Most of the new emigrants leave China on either a skilled-worker visa (as Lin will), an employer-sponsored visa or a family-related visa (joining a family member who is already abroad). Chinese make up almost two-thirds of the holders of an elite type of business-skills visa for Australia.

The queue to get into some countries is growing longer as they raise barriers in response to Chinese migration, while lowering them for many businessmen and tourists (97 million Chinese traveled abroad in 2013). Canada recently suspended its investor-visa program with an estimated 45,000 Chinese nationals on the waiting list, 70 percent of the entire backlog. Officials may feel that they set the bar too low. A qualifying property investment is $725,000 — a two-bedroom flat in Beijing sells for that much.

Meanwhile, the economically beleaguered governments of southern Europe are easing their rules to get their hands on Chinese cash. For a bit less money than Canada’s canceled program, you can buy residency in Portugal or residency for two in Italy or Greece — and you don’t even need to live there.

Mena Chung, a 40-year-old editor of a fashion magazine, left her job last year and moved to a townhouse in Marina del Rey, Calif., after getting a green card under EB-5, an American program that requires an outlay of $500,000. The cost of living can now be much cheaper abroad, and Chung and her husband are currently living off the savings from selling their flats in Beijing while they take English lessons. When she gets back to work, Chung knows it will not be as high-powered a job as she had in China, but that doesn’t bother her. “In China I feel life is just work,” she says. “It’s not life.”

Still, emigration can be a slog, especially if you are working-class and do not own property. Your choice of destinations can be limited by which programs best fit your skills. Some provinces or states have specific job needs, which is how Lin, a manager at an industrial company in Shanghai, found his way to Adelaide. Even then it can be difficult to find a decent job when you land.

Copyright 2013 The Economist Newspaper Limited, London. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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