Brutal lockdown proves final straw for the middle classes fleeing Shanghai

Shanghai worker Covid - Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images
Shanghai worker Covid - Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

Take a vitamin C pill, spray disinfectant on the lift ceiling, go downstairs to get a PCR test, rush back to the apartment, shove your clothes in the washing machine, shower and repeat.

All while trying to suppress the fear that at any moment, authorities might take you away to a Covid quarantine centre and kill your cat.

That was what daily life was reduced to for 60 days for Nicole Tsai, a 35-year-old marketing manager at an international corporation in Shanghai, who went through the city’s gruelling two-month Covid lockdown this spring.

It was “a constant state of aggravation and suffocation”, she told The Telegraph.

After years of witnessing the gradual loss of political freedoms in China and with no hope of things improving in the future, the lockdown was the final straw.

Particularly when she started hearing reports that people’s pets were being culled as an infection prevention measure.

“I became very sure that I didn’t want to live like that anymore,” she said. “I had to run.”

Ms Tsai is among a growing exodus of middle-class Chinese and foreigners who are leaving Shanghai – and sometimes the country – after the city’s draconian lockdown in April and May.

Shanghai Covid - Qilai Shen/Bloomberg
Shanghai Covid - Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

For two months, most residents in the city of 26 million people were banned from leaving their apartments – including to walk pets or get groceries – except for near-daily PCR tests.

Thousands were placed in makeshift quarantine centres, some inside office buildings and exhibition halls. There were also widespread reports of people going hungry because of a lack of food supplies.

The strict measures quarantining vast swathes of the population were intended to keep the omicron variant of Covid at bay and protect the country’s economic centre.

But with cases still popping up, threats of fresh restrictions and no end in sight to leader Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid policy, China’s wealthiest and most cosmopolitan metropolis is being permanently scarred as wealthier residents pack their bags for good.

Biao Xiang, the director of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany, said: “It’s quite a paradox because these people who have benefitted from China’s economic development, they are migrating not for higher income. They are not going to get jobs with pay at the level they would get in Shanghai.

“No one is leaving for economic benefit, but rather out of concern for life itself.”

Shanghai Covid - Alex Plavevski/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Shanghai Covid - Alex Plavevski/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

At least 10,000 high-net-worth individuals will leave mainland China and 3,000 will depart Hong Kong this year amid Covid-19 restrictions and political uncertainties, taking a combined wealth of £53 billion with them, according to the Henley & Partners consultancy. Many more middle class and upper middle class residents are also looking for a way out.

The term circulating on Chinese social media is “runxue”, or the science of “running” away from home, with people taking to Weibo to exchange advice and share plans for emigrating.

In Shanghai, the exodus applies to Chinese and foreigners alike, many of whom had been drawn by the city’s international outlook and plethora of opportunities.

Among them are Sasha and Colin, an American couple who moved there four years ago to set up a business. They asked to use pseudonyms because they are still running the business and fear reprisal from authorities.

They said that they fell in love with the city’s authenticity and easy lifestyle, as well as the feeling that you could reach out to anyone and create something together.

But all that has changed now.

“I think the lockdown has killed that kind of energy,” said Sasha. “There is a lot of collective anxiety, and the implications for the mental health of the population [are large]. The government doesn’t realise how much damage they have done and how much anxiety and fear still exist even after opening up.”

Shanghai Covid - Yang Jianzheng/VCG via Getty Images
Shanghai Covid - Yang Jianzheng/VCG via Getty Images

Sasha left for the US together with the couple’s seven-month-old baby in late March just before the full lockdown, as soon as she heard that authorities were separating children from their parents if they tested positive for Covid-19.

Colin stayed for five weeks of lockdown, after which he too left China.

The couple said they were already planning to leave the city, which had become more constricting in the past couple of years, but the lockdown accelerated the process.

For locals, the lockdown and ensuing departures have accelerated the degradation of Shanghai’s quality of life – a process that has been underway for several years.

“The cultural environment used to be relatively free, there were many exhibitions, live music, foreign bands,” said Zhang, a 34-year-old programmer.

He said it used to be the most cosmopolitan city in China. “After this lockdown, plus the blow to the education industry and the crackdown on English learning… foreign investors are withdrawing, and many other foreigners will leave. The cosmopolitan atmosphere will definitely be gone afterwards.”

Zhang now wants to emigrate to New Zealand.