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Expats Leaving China: Where Did They Go and Will They Return?

Enduring COVID policies have caused many expats to leave China. Not all China expats know what exactly they are moving towards next, they just know it’s time to leave China. But where do these expats go? Are they happy with their decision to leave? And will these expats ever return to China?
A recent visit I had to Jingshan Park, Beijing in June 2022, (with a COVID mask required when taking photos, of course).

I’ve said many goodbyes this year to expat friends leaving Beijing, going to at least one goodbye party every month since 2022 started. And I know I’m not the only one. The “Farewell China” parties abound plentifully in most expat circles across China.

One friend in Beijing who is catching a flight home this week said, “I don’t have the next step planned yet. I just have two flights booked out of China in case one is cancelled. And for the future? I’ll travel and spend time with family and friends, then see what happens next.”

This seems to be a common theme for some expats leaving China – not everyone knows what exactly they are moving towards next, they just know it’s time to leave China.

As a China expat of 7 years, I’m very curious how this Expat Exodus will affect the foreign communities in China. But I’m also curious about the expats who have left. Where do these expats go? Are they happy with their decision to leave? Will these expats ever return to China?

A photo from Reuters article “After lockdown, Shanghai tries to mend fences with foreign firms.

Since I wrote “Expat Exodus from China: Is the Time of the Foreigners Over?” last month surveying foreigners about their future plans in China, I received some interesting responses that have made me reflect more on the effects of China’s zero-COVID policies on the foreign community in China. So I conducted another survey in my Instagram community to hear perspectives from expats who have left China.

Around 350 expats who have already left China or are leaving this year responded to my survey questions. 61% of them worked in the education sector, 17% in business or tech, 6% in media, and 16% in other sectors.

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. What city did expats live in and when did they leave?
  2. Why did you leave China and what sector did you work in?
  3. Where did expats go and will they return to China?
  4. Under what circumstances would you return to China?
  5. Overall satisfaction and happiness leaving China?
  6. Any regrets about leaving China?
  7. For expats who left to work or live in another country, where did they go?
  8. Do you think the “Golden Age” of Foreigners in China has already passed?
  9. What does this phrase “The Golden Age of Foreigners” mean?
  10. Expats Returning To China
“China’s reluctance to budge on its strict zero-Covid policy is hastening the departure of expats from the world’s second-largest economy, with business groups warning that unpredictable regulations were driving foreigners away.” –China’s pursuit of zero Covid driving expats away, France 24

What city did expats live in and when did they leave?

28% of my survey respondents left China before COVID, 21% left in 2020, 14% left in 2021, and 37% left this year or are going to leave this year.

It’s interesting to see the jump between 2020 and 2022. I feel that expats who stuck it out through 2020 wanted to stay in China to see if things would get better in 2021. But after 2 years of COVID and travel restrictions enduring, many grew tired of waiting for the return to normalcy (especially for many expats who haven’t been home or seen family in 2-3 years now).

Also, 30% lived in Beijing, 27% in Shanghai, 13% in Guangzhou or Shenzhen, and 30% in other cities. That means 70% lived in China’s biggest cities, so it will be interesting to see the affects of foreigners leaving these international hubs.

Why did you leave China and what sector did you work in?

My survey results are limited to 4 options only, but I think it’s no surprise that 50% of foreigners leaving China said it was because of COVID policies and lockdowns, plus not travelling. There are a multitude of different responses connected to COVID – too many to list them all. But expanding on why they left, some people responded that family and partners are a big reason for leaving. “I’ve been separated from my boyfriend from 9 months,” one person told me.

Other reasons why people have left:

  • “So many restrictions on my bank account that made using/accessing my money in China difficult. I was scared we would be locked down and I would starve because I couldn’t access my money.”
  • “The idea that these strict policies will last another year has made us decide to leave.”
  • “Left for personal health reasons and family reasons.”
  • “I was on vacation when the pandemic hit. I can’t get back.”
  • “Living with the risk of being taken away. Not only us but also kids. No way.”

62% of my followers who took this survey work in the education sector. In my previous survey, many expats spoke about education crackdowns and curriculum changes that were making it difficult for them to teach here, so this correlation also makes sense.

Where did expats go and will they return to China?

I was very curious if these foreigners were returning home, or if they were moving on to other countries to live and work. 47% of these expats said they went to their home country, 32% said they went to live or work in another country, 10% said they were going to travel around, and 12% said other.

And then to my surprise, when I asked if expats would ever return to live in China, 47% said yes, 34% said maybe, and 18% said no.

Under what circumstances would you return to China?

When asked what it would take to return to China, this response seemed to encapsulate most foreigner’s feelings: “Pre-COVID opportunities, ability to enter and leave easily, and for the anti-foreigner mentality to die down.”

Just this week, China’s National Health Commission released an update about quarantine for inbound international travelers to China: Bloomberg reported that “travelers will now only need to spend seven days in a quarantine facility, and then monitor their health at home for a further three days. That’s down from 14 days hotel quarantine in many parts of China currently, and as many as 21 days of isolation in the past.”

Maybe this is the first step in the direction of expats returning to China in the future, but I think it’s not enough to change anything right now.

Other responses that were written:

  • “Open or at least semi-open borders. Ease of travel in and out.”
  • “Guaranteed flight and hopefully no quarantine. Would be okay with 3 days though.”
  • “Policies affecting foreigners and people’s attitude toward us would have to return to how it was before 2020.”
  • “No quarantine or testing requirements for COVID. Relaxing of rules.”
  • “There’s a lot politically going on to look at.”
  • “Less restrictions: travel, lockdown, financial remittance.”

It’s very telling that people are mostly open to reconsidering coming back to China if the COVID measures and resulting effects were to return to pre 2020 days. I was a little surprised, as I expected more people to more permanently relocate and settle elsewhere. But I think it also shows what a global world we live in now, and how satisfied people were with living and working in China pre-2020.

Overall satisfaction and happiness leaving China?

When asked about overall satisfaction and happiness leaving China, 26% responded they were happy, 46% responded they were feeling mixed but it was the right thing, 13% responded neutral, and 15% responded they were unhappy.

Any regrets about leaving China?

Facing stressful COVID situations or work policies, many expats didn’t want to leave but felt they had no choice. One person said, “No regrets, except I wish I could have said goodbye to everyone. I feel like things didn’t end on my terms.”

Other expats said they regretted:

  • “Not being able to say a proper goodbye to Shanghai.”
  • “Leaving lots of our things behind thinking this would ‘blow over’ in a few months.”
  • “Not at all. Living my best life back in Europe.”
  • “We loved our little flat and the lifestyle we had living in Beijing.”
  • “No regrets but want to return. Want our family together full time.”
  • “Big regrets. We miss our lifestyle in China and the security and family. We are currently in Canada.”

For expats who left to work or live in another country, where did they go?

For the expats leaving, it’s a big question of what you want to do next. Find a new permanent job elsewhere or move to another country temporarily? Do you move back home, take time away from working, and just enjoy time with family and friends? I’ve seen many people who, not wanting to go back to their home country, relocated to Thailand or Indonesia, or jetted off to Europe.

For expats who said they left China to work in another country that wasn’t their home country, 19% said they went to North, Central, or South America, 45% said Europe, 31% said Asia / Middle East / Australia, and 5% said Africa.

It would be interesting to do further studies with more options to find out which specific countries people left to go towards, as many expats are trying to find jobs, cost of living, and quality of life that are comparable to China before 2020.

Do you think the “Golden Age” of Foreigners in China has already passed?

I mentioned the “Golden Age” of foreigners before, and it’s a phrase I’ve heard ever since I arrived in China in 2015. Many foreigners would tell me that even in 2015 I had missed this Golden Era in China. So I was curious if other expats felt this sentiment or even used this phrase. 61% said yes the Golden Age of Foreigners has passed, 18% said maybe, 9% said no, and 11% said they don’t use that phrase.

The Golden Age of Foreigners

What does this phrase “The Golden Age of Foreigners” mean?

People have different definitions of what this phrase, “Golden Age of the Foreigners in China” means. Like mentioned before, it’s important to consider factors like why expats decided to come to China and the privilege’s that expats have or had before – especially those who are White and Native Speakers. But there are other factors as well that people consider when they said this.

Many people responded that it was generally a “Welcoming and positive attitude towards foreigners. Freedom of travel and career opportunities as well as social economic mobility. A time when China gave me a sense of optimism about the future.”

Some people have a set time for it: “Immediately before and in the 4-6 following the 2008 Olympics.” Others say: “The expat mindset makes the ‘golden age.’ It’s all in their outlook on everyday life.”

And some thinks it’s silly phrase. “It’s a bit silly. People have been saying this for years in different countries. When I got to Korea in 2012 everyone told me I had just missed “The Golden Age.”

Expats Returning To China

From doing this survey, it appears that many expats feel mixed about leaving but knew it was the right thing to do. Many went back home or have traveled to work in another country, possibly figuring out what they will do next. And it seems many foreigners would like to return to China in the future – but who knows when that will actually be. Every expat has their own experience with COVID in China and needs to make the best for themselves and their families.

Thank you to the expats who took this survey! And let me know: what did you find interesting about the survey? Are there other questions you would ask expats about leaving China? Let me know!

3 comments

  1. We left in 2015 and resettled on the Azores. From Beijing to a small town with 5000 inhabitants was, after 20 years in China, litterally a breath of fresh air. Everything on a more human scale, no traffic jams, small community and stunning natural surroundings. Now we have two businesses and know almost the entire community. It is so different. One thing that was very strange was that in Beijing you could be quite anonymous, here everyone knows you. My wife is homesick sometimes, mainly the ease of getting things done in Beijing and the 24/7 economy whereas here a lot of things are more of a project and as a Beijinger she misses her family. Eespecially the past 3 years due to Covid restrictions made travel quite impossible. All in all I do think it has been good to get out of the rat race called Beijing. Do I miss it? Sometimes, we had nice friends, trips out of town to inner Mongolia and loads of other places, I miss large projects we did, standing on construction sites with hundreds or thousands of workers making incredible progress, the Chinese companies I worked with and government institutions with super nice hardworking teams. It was such an interesting rollercoaster to see progress first hand from 1995 till 2015. Anything was possible. But 20 years also meant such an amount of working hours and travel that I am happy to really settle down which in the long run, for a foreigner, is not all that easy in China, at least not for me. Would we go back? Never say never but now we are stuck with a farm full of horses, donkeys, dogs, cats and chicken which makes it a lot more difficult to execute such a decision.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing your experiences and what you are doing now! It sounds like a different pace of life after the hustle and busyness of Beijing. There are definitely perks of the big city life, but I can completely understand the need for slowing down and being part of a smaller community! I have really missed traveling and getting out into nature more during these last few years. Best wishes with all your endeavors now!

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  2. Definitely won’t be returning to ‘live’ in China.. But I now have family there so I will definitely go back probably once a year once all the COVID restrictions have passed for international travel there. I lived in Beijing for 9 and a half years and then in Ma’Anshan (Anhui) for about a year.

    We left at the start of this year, after enduring the peak of COVID in Beijing and then a year in Ma’Anshan.. For me, there was definitely a change in attitudes towards foreigners – even in Beijing. The school curriculum, the parents, people out and about in bars and restaurants… The conversations used to be ‘tell me about where you’re from, tell me about what you like here’ and I felt they changed to ‘here is better than where you’re from, USA is so bad (I’m not American), us Chinese people think…, UK stole from China, Chinese… is better than your…’ and it just felt awkward at family events too. Every time at family events, in front of many people, I was the centre of attention and it was always ‘attacks’ about why and how China is the best.

    Another reason is because of our son. He would be singled out in crazy ways. He literally stopped traffic, people crossed the road to look at him, random people would reach out and touch his hair or face and it just felt a little unsafe. Here in the UK, he’s not special, he doesn’t stand out and I think its better for him and for us – we can relax.

    I really enjoyed the first 5-7 years of my time in China and wouldn’t change it for the world. But.. I won’t be going back to live there.. But as the comment above says – never say never haha.

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