Why China's Rich Want to Leave

Food safety, pollution, and infrastructure are just a few of the reasons that some affluent Chinese are considering emigration.

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The financial district of Pudong on a hazy day in Shanghai, on January 21, 2013. (Aly Song/Reuters)

A recent viral infographic compiled by Chinese news portal Sina shows that more than 150,000 Chinese citizens emigrated from China in 2011, or about 1/10 of the population of Philadelphia. Top destinations were New Zealand, which attracted 13 percent of emigrants, followed by Canada, Australia, and the United States. Investment immigration, skilled immigration, and study abroad enabled most to make the move, while some chose to make the move in less orthodox ways.

The rich and the highly educated account for the largest group in this emigration trend, according to the infographic. As revealed in a report by China Merchants Bank and Bain & Company, "Among those mainland business owners who possess over 100 million RMB (about $16 million), 27 percent have already emigrated, while another 47 percent are considering emigrating." In fact, wealthy Chinese considering emigration include not only those from China's biggest cities, but also residents of some second-tier cities such as Dalian and Chongqing.

This is not the first time that China has witnessed a wave of emigration. Some Chinese moved elsewhere during the early years of Reform and Opening Up, a period of economic and political liberalization that began in 1978. Another decade-long wave of emigration began in the late 1980s; this group consisted mainly of students studying abroad, and destinations mainly included Taiwan, Hong Kong and Asian countries. While previous waves of Chinese emigration were driven by blue-collar workers such as cooks, tailors and barbers, and later waves by students, this new wave of emigration includes Chinese with more "upstream" occupations, such as engineers, accountants and lawyers, as well as the extremely wealthy.

It is not hard to understand what may have pushed this group of Chinese away from their hometowns, given recent news about pollution, food safety, quality of life, education and infrastructure in China. Even the inconvenience of carrying a Chinese passport, which makes international travel a nuisance, can drive some people to seek passports of a more convenient color.

This wave of emigration has left a bitter taste in the mouths of some who cannot leave, while others expressed understanding. Wrote one user on microblogging platform Sina Weibo, "Capital is continuously being transferred abroad, leaving a mess at home."Another commented, "With high housing prices, skewed education and healthcare systems, and a worsening environment...even basic reproductive rights have also been taken away. With all of this, you can't blame those who are able to do so for emigrating, they just want to find an environment that is just and suitable for living."

Ren Zhiqiang, a real estate tycoon hugely influential in China's sphere of public opinion, may have pointed out the real psychological reasons behind the latest wave of emigration:

There are so many reasons for emigration, but the most important one is the sense of security. Safety in life, wealth, food, air, education, and rights. The lack of a sense of security is one of the important reasons why there is social instability. Only by giving citizens a sense of security can a stable society be established.

With many leaving China for the aforementioned reasons, emigration has become a political issue. In November, 2011, an opinion piece in the state-run People's Daily,entitled "We Should Make It Harder for the Wealthy to Emigrate," attracted a great number of readers and went viral on Chinese social media sites. The article proposed an "exit tax" on wealthy Chinese leaving the country. Many Web users agreed that such a measure would benefit the majority of Chinese while limiting capital outflow. One anonymous commentor complained, "Once you have money and power, you're no longer patriotic. Think about it - where did your money and power come from? They're practically peacetime traitors."

Other netizens questioned the idea that emigration equaled abandonment of one's country. Wrote one Weibo user, "[Emigration] has its good points and bad points. Does emigration necessarily means you don't love this country? Won't the emigrating population benefit China in some ways? Isn't the huge amount of investment by overseas Chinese, who once left China, leading to China's rise? Cannot overseas Chinese also become the potential actors boosting China's soft power? Though the U.S. currently has strong soft power, it does not have this unique strength."

This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.