The strict pandemic lockdowns, zero-COVID policy, and other changes have prompted many foreigners to leave China, a trend that is now being referred to as the ‘Expat Exodus’. I asked many of my expat friends and followers how they feel China has changed and what their future plans are.
Recently I (somewhat) jokingly said to a friend that ‘the time of the foreigners’ is over in China, in reference to the way Elrond, from the Lord of the Rings, said that ‘the time of the Elves is over’.
Other China expats have been saying the ‘Golden Age’ of foreigners in China has been over for awhile – even before COVID began when I moved to Beijing in 2018, old Beijing expats told me that the Golden Age of Beijing had been in the 2010s, and informed me that I had missed out (whoops, I arrived too late to the party I guess).
But COVID and other changes are prompting many of us to ask now: Is this the end of the good days for foreigners in China?
There are many reasons for this mass exodus of expats in China. More than 2 years after the initial outbreak of COVID, China is still enforcing a strict zero-COVID policy, which has had a drastic impact on people here. While many other countries have moved towards a ‘living with COVID’ mentality, I have friends in Shanghai who have been in lockdown for 40+ days now, most unable to go outside except for testing, and many have also had difficulty ordering food and getting deliveries, which has taken a toll on their mental health and long-term plans of living in China. (Follow Whitney Lofts and Cynthia on Instagram to see more updates about Shanghai).
But it’s also more than the pandemic that is causing expats in China to leave; it’s visa and tax rules, education crackdowns, the international political climate, and an uncertain future with changing policies that make life as an expat more difficult now. China feels like a different place than it did years ago when I first moved here in 2015, and we’re all wondering about the effect it will have on the China expats who stay, and the future of foreigners in China.
Last November, SCMP wrote an article called, “Expat exodus is bad for China, bad for the US and bad for the world” (It was also reposted on WeChat on ExpatHub here), citing that, “Stringent pandemic policies and tax law changes are driving expatriates away, eroding business and diplomatic pillars. With so many foreigners leaving, examples of good US-China people-to-people relations will become increasingly hard to find.”
This month, Sixth Tone published an article entitled, “Eventually, China’s Borders Will Reopen. Will Foreigners Return?” where they ruminate if foreigners will return to China, “…or will China’s foreigner population, already small compared to many other countries, remain smaller still? Besides the effects of the pandemic, crackdowns on disingenuous visas and tutoring companies have shown many foreigners the door. And the exodus, in certain ways, reinforces itself. Some people might leave because those who left before them were their teachers, customers, or friends.”
As an American who has lived in China for nearly 7 years, I’ve loved my time here. Although not always easy, there is a reason I’ve stayed so long. I arrived first in Hunan Province in 2015 where I taught for 2 years at the University of South China, then moved to Guangzhou for one year to teach at a kindergarten, and then finally landed in Beijing, where I’ve been for more than 3 years now working in marketing and media. I’ve traveled to over 24 regions and provinces, writing about my experiences in China and hoping to bridge a gap between the east and west to create more awareness and cultural understanding of China. There are so many good things about living in China, and I’ve met some really amazing people. But it’s impossible to ignore the changes and how they make expat life more challenging.
Also just an FYI: I’m not planning to leave anytime soon. But like many others, I’m thinking about the future and the changes here in China. I’ve been to many goodbye parties this year for friends who have decided (or been left with no other choice than) to leave, and will most definitely have more goodbyes throughout the rest of this year.
So I asked my expat friends and followers in China how they feel about the changes and what their future plans are.
These survey questions were conducted in an Instagram Story poll and questionnaire, so obviously the results are limited to those who saw my IG stories within the 24 hour time frame they were shown. These results do not reflect the views of all China foreigners.
1. Are you leaving China?
Out of the 924 China expats who responded to my story, 36% said they already left China, 15% said they will leave this year, 26% said not this year but they will leave in the future, and 23% said no plans to leave yet. Due to limited poll response space, this survey doesn’t include those expats who left China during lockdown and are trying to return, etc.
2. Do you as a foreigner feel China has changed since 2020 (or even before that)?
88% said yes life as an expat in China has changed, 8% said it has somewhat changed, and 4% said no it hasn’t changed.
3. If yes, how has China changed?
The top responses that China expats gave: increasing xenophobia and discrimination foreigners are facing, the education sector crackdown, changing tax laws, visa restrictions, not being able to travel or see family, and the overall quality of life as an expat. I wanted to share some of their responses on these topics below, for those who want to see how different expats in China are feeling right now, so I’ve collected the responses into these 4 main categories.
- Overall Expat Life in China
- Xenophobia and Discrimination Expats Face in China
- Education Crackdowns, Tax Laws, and Visa Policies for Foreigners
- COVID policies, traveling, and not seeing family
Note that these quotes reflect the opinions and experiences of many China expats. China is a big country, and these expats live in various cities with different backgrounds, motivations for living in China, and experiences here. Many people have shared with me that they feel the same way as some of these replies. But a few have mentioned they haven’t experienced these things, or have experienced something completely different. Everyone’s experience is not the same. Once again, the reason I wanted to write this article was to share various experiences and perspectives of expats in China.
Also, it’s important to acknowledge the expat privilege we have. There are many benefits we do receive as expats, which are (or were) a big factor for many of us moving to China. Many expats earn far more money in certain fields than our Chinese counterparts – whether in education, media, tech, etc., China expats have a higher salary, with generally less stringent expectations and work hours and more holiday time (I am not speaking for everyone, of course). When I was a teacher at a kindergarten in Guangzhou, I earned more than the teachers but worked way less hours. I traveled quite frequently, and could afford other luxuries. But it’s possible to acknowledge certain areas of privilege we have while also recognizing there are also downsides and difficulties.
1. Overall Expat Life Changes in China:
- “It doesn’t feel safe to plan a future here, where before it felt anything was possible.”
- “There’s no spark of optimism anymore. Expats seem to no longer be flourishing…. many of the ones who are still here are the ones who have nothing left to go back to if they return to their home countries. They’re more or less stuck. A generalization, of course, but I no longer sense any excitement about life here in the expat community.”
- “I feel there used to be so much hope and excitement and the opportunities and future. Now it feels a bit uncertain and not the same as before.”
- “I miss when the choices were exciting and not stressful.”
2. Xenophobia and Discrimination Faced By Expats in China
Many responses spoke about the increasing discrimination China foreigners are facing.
- “More xenophobia, people avoiding me or putting their masks on when they see me.”
- “Tense politics (especially as an American) and COVID-related xenophobia.
- “More hostile to foreigners, more suspicious and nationalist/xenophobic feelings.”
- “We don’t feel welcome here. They treat us like we are the virus carriers.”
The Beijinger published an article last week titled, “No, COVID rules don’t single foreigners out.” It received a lot of backlash from China foreigners who felt the article and the responses from the editorial staff invalidated their experiences and discrimination they have faced. (Also published here on WeChat where more comments and specific experiences were shared.) It was then followed up by these articles: Covid Aside, Does Policy Discriminate Against or Privilege Foreigners? and We Seek To Be Inclusive, Not Divisive.
The first article was discussed in a Beijing WeChat group, where I’ve re-shared some of the comments and why it upset people. Most people agreed that it’s not the policies themselves that discriminate, but individuals who choose to do so. This does not reflect all Chinese people at all. I wanted to share comments from this conversation because I see similar conversations like this happening in other groups and platforms as well.
- “That would be like me saying people facing discrimination in the US should pull themselves up by their bootstraps and not let it define them, because I too see bad things here and have simply focused on the joy instead.”
- “Imagine a white person writing an article like this about discrimination in the US, with a headline like that post.”
- “I think it’s true that the official policies do not discriminate between foreigners and Chinese citizens, but people who execute are individual and it’s all over the map. I don’t think we need to rake the author over the coals if we think her perspective, is off point.”
- “It’s needlessly pedantic to say “the rules don’t discriminate between foreigner and local.” Sure, the law does not, but actual people on the street do. I’m not slamming the nation as a whole or every Chinese person for doing it, but I don’t like it being implied that the ones who are exist only in my silly little imagination. Not cool.”
Most were just upset that it downplayed the fact that these situations happen.
- “Discrimination happens here. We know it, sometimes we experience it. The problem is when a foreign focused magazine run by an American with deep ties to the expat community decides to run a gaslighting trash post like this.”
- “I don’t care that much about it or I’d leave. The good people always outweigh the bad. But don’t pretend it doesn’t happen.”
- “The issue is this: she’s equating being told to not fly a kite with the same kind of discrimination that foreigners tend to face. I feel her article is reactionary to the last couple days where foreigners are being told they can’t sit on the grass, eat outside together, etc. Chinese people are being told the same is the point she is trying to make, but she then equates that to we are also treated poorly, because we, too, cannot sit on grass and fly our kites, except for the fact that in the end, she did fly her kite, while a foreigner maybe wouldn’t have been able to. And on top of that, that is the highest level of discrimination she has faced, and is saying “See? We are also treated poorly.”, when the reality is: that is nothing compared to what some of us have faced.”
- In that case you guys should have said, “Irene wrote this from her personal experiences, and in no way does this opinion piece reflect the full spectrum of experiences that foreigners have gone through.”
- In another POV someone said: “Discrimination happens. What also happens everything day is some foreigners misinterpret things around them and falsely attribute them to being discriminated against.”
3. Education Crackdowns, Tax Laws, and Visa Policies for Foreigners in China
- “Education sector not allowing tutoring/pushing out foreign curriculum more and more. Cryptocurrency is banned and the tax law will eventually change.”
- “My ability to teach what I want and plan extracurricular activities has diminished a lot.”
- “New policies. Stricter restrictions saying no foreign material can be used in schools.”
- “I got told my company isn’t hiring foreigners anymore. I feel less welcome.”
- “Getting a word visa approved now takes around 6 months. That’s just not working for most businesses.”
- “My partner has a job offer, contract and work permit, but can’t get a PU letter.”
- “Our international school (it runs from nursery to middle years) has become school that is under Chinese government (Hong Kong curriculum) They say we are still international but the “international” is gone from the name. Curriculum now has “Chinese math” every day and more Chinese culture…. international school’s licenses will not be issued anymore probably on 5-6 more years.”
4. COVID Policies, traveling, and not seeing family
- “The travel element is nearly non-existent. Exploring the country is near impossible.”
- “Everything you mentioned PLUS a weird and different feeling when telling friends in Europe I live here.”
- “I was hired in January 2020 to arrive in August 2020. That didn’t happen, but arrived in January 2021. I had every intention of settling down here (Shanghai) and being here for a while. I even signed a contract for next school year. I have now asked to be released from my contract and will return to the US in June. This is not what I signed up for. – Christie Lewis
- “Less acceptance overall. Simple things made more difficult as an expat.”
- “More nationalistic, more over the top security, less expats coming in.”
- “I left China and I can’t return.”
- “I think the biggest thing is dealing with the “loss” of so many friends leaving and very few new people coming in the expat community.”
- “Just the overall quality of life for expats – bars, restaurants, imported goods. Much less now.”
- “In 2016 foreigners wanted to be here. Now everyone wonders why they are still here.”
The End of an Era in China?
Personally, I am still really reflecting on how I feel. I think I’m partially just very sad and mourning the China life I had before. Feeling safe planning a future here. The days of traveling frequently and no restrictions. That is a privileged life, I know, and there are far worse things in life to be worried about. I am alive and healthy. I’ve still been able to meet friends, go out to bars and restaurants (until these recent May restrictions and soft lockdown in Beijing now) and also take trips camping and to the Great Wall. But it feels like the end of an era as a foreigner in China.
The tone has changed as well. I used to tell my family and friends and people back in the west about life in China. About the incredible people I’ve met, the opportunity to learn about Chinese culture, the amazing travel experiences I’ve had. Where there was an openness and curiosity before, it’s now harder to explain to people why I’m still in China. It’s always been a little challenging to talk about China, more so from lack of knowledge or understanding, but it’s now increased tenfold. I’ve received pushback and even super negative responses and feedback (which maybe I’ll share in another post sometime).
But like mentioned before: I really have loved living in China, my jobs, my travel opportunities, the rich experiences I’ve had. And most Chinese people are hospitable, friendly, and so so wonderful. I’ve had overwhelmingly positive experiences with the people and traveling here. There is a difference between government policies and “baixing 百姓” or common people. And I’ve always felt safe here, even when traveling as a solo female. I’m not going to let all negative experiences color my time in China, but I do need to be thoughtful of my future here in a different way as the situations have changed.
What is the Future of Expats Who Stay in China?
So, is the time of the foreigners in China over? Will foreigners return after this ‘Expat Exodus’? What does the future look like for expats who stay in China? I guess time will remain to tell. For us choosing to stay in China, I think we remain cautiously aware, watching, and (dare we say?) hopeful, but recognizing that these changes will have long-term effects on the foreigner population in China. And in a strange way, it’s an interesting time to be here in China. I’m very curious what will happen.
As one expat wrote to me, “Gotta be adaptable. I think if we are, we can still be quite successful here.” Another said: “Although it’s increasingly difficult to balance and adapt to the policies, I’m staying optimistic. I have no plans to leave yet.”
And as another expat friend said, “It’s also trying hard to not to spiral into the never ending what ifs and why with China.”
We can’t fully predict the future, and it can be mentally draining to try to do so, so all we can do is try to adapt to the situations we are facing now, and make the best choices for ourselves, our mental health, and our future that we can.
For other foreigners in China now or before: how do you feel? I would love to hear your responses and see if you have some shared experiences or different thoughts to the China expats who shared their opinions here.