This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Police in the central Chinese province of Hunan have ordered local residents to hand over their passports to police, promising to return them “when the pandemic is over,” amid a massive surge in people looking for ways to leave China or obtain overseas immigration status.
A March 31 notice from the Baisha police department in the central province of Hunan posted to social media ordered employers to hand over the passports of all employees and family members to police, “to be returned after the pandemic.”
An officer who answered the phone at the Baisha police department confirmed the report, and said the measure is being rolled out nationwide.
“According to official requirements, [passports] must be handed over because of the pandemic,” the officer said.
“It’s everywhere, not just Hunan. It’s across the whole country,” they said. “Anyone with a passport has to hand it over, not just people who have an employer.”
“If people don’t hand them over … then they have to expect to be investigated,” the officer said.
China’s zero-COVID policy of mass compulsory testing, stringent lockdowns and digital health codes has sparked an emigration wave fueled by “shocked” middle-classes fed up with food shortages, confinement at home, and amid broader safety concerns.
The number of keyword searches on social media platform WeChat and search engine Baidu for “criteria for emigrating to Canada” has skyrocketed by nearly 3,000 percent in the past month, with most queries clustered in cities and provinces under tough, zero-COVID restrictions, including Shanghai, Jiangsu, Guangdong and Beijing.
Immigration consultancies in Shanghai confirmed they have also been seeing a huge spike in emigration inquiries in recent weeks.
Many clients are now looking for “a green card from a big country and a passport from a small country” to supplement their Chinese passports, a consultant who gave only the surname Liu told RFA.
“Some clients also need a favorable exchange rate [with their destination country],” he said. “We have had nearly four times as many inquiries this year as this time last year.”
He said most people are looking for a one-step process to achieve permanent residency, and don’t mind spending more of their savings to achieve it.
“There are many who are applying to Turkey, because [you need to] buy a house for at least U.S. $250,000, which is between one and two million yuan,” Liu said. “There are rumors this will go up to U.S. $400,000 in May, so a lot of people are trying jump aboard the last bus before the price hike.”
A Shanghai-based immigration consultant surnamed Shen said more and more people are applying now, as there is scant sign that the government will ease up on the zero-COVID policy.
“You could maybe start by applying for permanent residency of another country, in case this escalates in future,” Shen said, referring to the order to hand over passports.
The wave of interest in leaving the country has sparked memes around the Chinese characters “runzhi,” a satirical reference both to late supreme leader Mao Zedong and the English word “run.”
“Mao Zedong’s [birth] name was Mao Runzhi, and he ran away at the most critical moment,” Xia Ming, professor of political science at New York’s City University, told RFA. “There is also the word run in English, as in run away.”
Xia sees the current exodus as the peak of a wave of migration that began around five years ago, and cited recent news events like the woman found chained by the neck in the eastern province of Jiangsu as catalysts, along with the pandemic.
“There are constantly cases of abduction and trafficking and missing persons,” Xia said. “Anyone could become that chained woman; it’s so random.”
“Women and children are kidnapped and sold as sex slaves or for organ donations, and this has had a big impact on China’s middle classes,” he said.
He said the Shanghai lockdown had also come as a huge shock to some of the most privileged people in Chinese society.
“These people who used to live more comfortable lives than everyone else suddenly found themselves facing starvation overnight, and lost any sense of personal dignity,” Xia said. “This was a huge shock to the quietly successful middle class.”
Taiwan-based Hong Kong commentator Sang Pu said people from Shanghai aren’t fleeing COVID-19 so much as their government’s draconian disease control restrictions.
“Emigration is being driven by the CCP’s authoritarian approach to disease control and prevention, not by the virus,” Sang said. “The reason is a political one.”
“But do their politics accord with those of the countries they are moving to? Not necessarily,” he said. “These people aren’t just refugees; they are looking for some kind of paradise where they can live freely, but they bring with them the legacy of authoritarian rule. We should stay vigilant.”
He said if rich Chinese businesspeople and senior officials are allowed to flee overseas with money, this would effectively set up a tried-and-tested channel for money-laundering, as well as providing the CCP with a growing foothold overseas.