Shanghai resident Yann Zhang has been looking for a way out of China for months.
“I don’t see when these pandemic measures based on the ‘COVID-zero’ concept will stop and I will feel scared and anxious every day,” the 29-year-old told the ABC.
“Society feels increasingly tense. Censorship has intensified, with [social media] deleted messages and blocked accounts very often.
“All of this is eroding young people’s faith in a better future.
Mr. Zhang is one of a growing number of young Chinese unhappy with the country’s direction and seeking a way out.
Online, the move has been tagged “run xue” or “run philosophy“.
“My neighbors have also started discussing the philosophy of the race. Everyone wants to run away,” said one Weibo user.
“It’s no surprise that the racing philosophy is so popular,” said another.
“At the very least, those from other countries can leave as a normal human being.”
Two Australian migration officers told the ABC that the number of applications from Chinese clients had more than doubled since April, with the majority coming from Shanghai.
Kirk Yan, a Melbourne-based immigration officer, said he receives “between 200 and 300 immigration applications from China” a month.
At this time last year, he was getting about 100 a month.
“A third of them come from Shanghai, followed by Beijing and Shenzhen,” Yan said.
“A good number of them are skilled migrants between the ages of 25 and 35 who don’t have families,” he said, adding that many were tech professionals.
Mr Zhang said he wanted to move to a country that was more livable and easier to obtain residency, and Australia fit the bill.
However, he said he feared China was making it more difficult for citizens to leave the country.
A spokesperson for China’s National Bureau of Immigration this week warned individuals to avoid “non-essential” and “non-emergency” travel, as international travel always carries “high risk and uncertainty”.
The government also said it would continue to “tighten the approval and issuance of travel documents”, including passports.
Mr. Zhang said he was anxious because his passport was due to expire in a year.
“My current plan is to leave next year, so I have a year to prepare,” he said.
Loss of young talent is ‘biggest threat’ to China’s economic future
Shanghai has been under varying levels of restrictions, including a full lockdown, since late March.
While local authorities said earlier this month that restrictions in some areas would be eased, residents were still required to stay in their neighborhoods and could only travel for groceries or medical services.
Meanwhile in Beijing, six of the most populated neighborhoods have been told to work from home, and restaurants have shut down food services to limit the spread of an outbreak there.
A spokesperson for China’s National Health Commission said that to “detect potential risks earlier”, the government plans to build more testing stations in major Chinese cities so that everyone has one “at less than 15 minutes walk.
The authority also plans to build more quarantine facilities across the country, sparking speculation on social media that the COVID-zero approach is not ending anytime soon.
The lockdown in Shanghai, one of China’s most important economic centers, appears to be having a significant impact on the national economy.
State media Guancha reported earlier this month that only 23.1% of the 10 million recent college graduates had found jobs.
This compares to a rate of more than 90% in 2020, according to data from the Ministry of Education.
Meanwhile, the National Bureau of Statistics this month reported an 11.1% drop in retail sales from a year ago.
Shi Heling, from Monash University’s economics department, said many Chinese are “struggling with their basic living needs”.
“The COVID-zero policy is a very heavy blow to the Chinese economy,” he said.
Dr Shi said the loss of such talent was “the biggest threat to China’s long-term economic development”.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has made it clear that the country will maintain the COVID-zero policy and “resolutely fight against all distortions, doubts and denials”.
But Dr Shi said continuing to isolate himself from the rest of the world would likely provoke even more anger in Chinese society.
“I think the Chinese government should also take this into account,” he said.
“Otherwise, it will lead to a series of social problems.”
How could an exodus from China affect Australia?
With Australian workers benefiting from historically low unemployment, the loss of China could be good for the Australian economy, according to Dr Shi.
The unemployment rate, at 3.9%, is Australia’s lowest since 1974.
“From Australia’s perspective, there is a significant labor shortage, and the biggest challenge for people running businesses is that they can’t find staff,” he said. Dr Shi.
“Therefore, this influx of Chinese migrants will undoubtedly bring new workers into the Australian labor market, which will be very helpful to the Australian economy.”
One of the Australian employers struggling to find workers is John McVicker, owner of Sydney computer engineering firm Best Technology Service.
Mr McVicker said that in 20 years in business he had never had so much trouble finding workers.
“It’s getting harder and harder to find experienced IT professionals.”
He said more skilled migrants would “certainly help”.
“It is the shortage of skilled migrants during COVID that I believe has created, or at the very least exacerbated this situation,” he said.