More professional workers in China seek a better life overseas

More mainland professionals, fed up with pollution, food safety and education problems, are taking their chances overseas

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 February, 2013, 9:07am

"Every time Beijing's PM2.5 [pollution particles dangerous to human health] level hits 300, the desire to leave this country overwhelms me," says Shi Xue , a magazine editor in Beijing.

Saving money to relocate, Shi, in her mid 30s, says: "It's human nature to move to a better place."

Shi is one of a growing number of people keen to escape the mainland's pollution and food-safety worries, a trend identified in a recent research report.

It's no longer just the wealthy and powerful who want to find a bolt-hole abroad. More white-collar workers like Shi are joining an expanding army of emigrants, according to the Annual Report on Chinese International Migration, released by the Centre for China and Globalisation (CCG) and the Beijing Institute of Technology's law school in December.

In 2011 alone, more than 150,000 mainlanders became permanent residents of the world's major immigration countries, it said. Of them, more than 100,000 acquired skilled worker visas, the most common form of immigration for middle-class professionals, while more than 10,000 obtained investor visas.

More than 87,000 of them obtained a US visa, making the United States the most popular destination. Canada, Australia and New Zealand followed, according to the report.

Phil Wang, a Chinese immigrant in Toronto who makes a living providing immigration services to Chinese, says nearly half of his clients are rich business owners and half are middle class.

Among the latter, 60 per cent are middle and senior-level managers at foreign or state-owned companies, and the rest are professionals who're resorting to investment immigration after failing to obtain a skilled-worker visa after Canada tightened the criteria last year.

It's human nature to move to a better place

"Emigration is becoming something reachable for more mainlanders," he said. "In order to stimulate the economy, some small provinces in Canada require only a two million yuan [HK$2.48 million] investment, including real estate, for Chinese who want to immigrate."

Such are China's property prices that anyone who owns one or two apartments in Beijing or Shanghai can afford such a sum.

Zheng Ran , a manager at a foreign publishing firm in Beijing who is applying for a Canadian visa, gave two reasons for leaving: "First, society is in great disorder and morality has sunk. Second, I want my daughter to receive a different education."

The 36-year-old father said he made up his mind two years ago, when a friend emigrated to the US, and his daughter was about to start primary school.

Dr Wang Huiyao , director of the CCG and co-author of the report, said worries about society and education are two main reasons why these people are leaving.

"Pollution and food safety scandals make people feel their health is at risk. Fierce competition, busy working lives and high inflation make life stressful," he said.

"The newly rich class also feels unhappy because of a low quality of life owing to an underdeveloped social security system and dissatisfying public services."

Many professionals also seek a better working environment.

"In China, science and technology are still at a low level. It lacks a system of encouraging creativity," Wang said, "At colleges, academic cheating and government intervention over academic studies are rampant. Small and medium-sized enterprises are struggling for financial support and talent."

Yang Du , a manager at an advertising company in Sydney, says as long as Chinese immigrants have had a good education and have no language problems, they can have a better life and career in Australia.

He obtained a master's degree in Beijing and taught in Hangzhou before earning a second master's in Sydney two years ago. He is applying for an Australian visa under the employer-sponsored migration programme.

Sydney is his city of choice. "In Beijing I can make 100,000 yuan a year and in Hangzhou maybe just 50,000. My wife and I would need to save up all our salaries if we wanted to buy an apartment in these cities," he said. "Though property prices are also high in Sydney, an average home costs about 3 million yuan. It would be more realistic to buy one there because our income is higher and other daily costs, such as driving, are lower.

"We like living a quiet life. [In Sydney], we keep work and personal life separate, and unlike in China, we needn't engage in job-related activities after work."

Another important advantage of being an Australian citizen is the convenience in travelling to the rest of the world. He recalled an e-mail from a friend who grew up in China and moved to the US aged 11.

"She wrote to me, saying: 'A US passport opens the world for me'. I was somewhat hurt - we grew up in the same environment but we saw a different world because of different passports we held."

Under existing policies, only a dozen developing countries and no developed countries provide visa-free access for citizens of the world's second-largest economy.

Wang said the exodus of the middle class could to some extent prevent China moving from a pyramid-shaped society - a huge middle and low-income population - to an olive-shaped one, where the middle class makes up the major portion of the population.

While many rich emigrants - mainly successful businesspeople - will stay in China for business after acquiring a foreign passport, the middle-class emigrants are leaving. Wang says those who obtain an investor visa will have spent nearly all their money and are financially incapable of investing in China again. Those who acquire a skilled worker visa won't need to come back since they can earn a comfortable wage and enjoy a better quality life outside of China.

This brain drain would hurt domestic companies and affect the development of the real economy, Wang said.

While most countries that suffer brain drains have immigrants to fill their talent pool, China has a huge deficit in talent. According to the report, only 4,752 foreigners held permanent residency in China by the end of 2011.

An emigration wave occurred as China started its economic reform in the late 1970s, when people who had relatives overseas left for family reunions or study, Wang said. A second wave came between the 1980s and 1990s as many developed countries loosened immigration requirements to attract Chinese investors and skilled workers. The third wave began at the beginning of this century.

The background of potential emigrants is changing. For example, more lawyers and doctors have applied in recent years besides business owners and executives

Over the three decades, the number of overseas Chinese grew to more than 45 million, Xu Yousheng , deputy director of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council was quoted by state media as saying in 2010.

This army is set to keep expanding. According to the report, the number of migration agents on the mainland grew by 8.5 per cent every year between 2006 and 2011. The report predicts there will be more than 1,000 such agents by 2015.

"The background of potential emigrants is changing. For example, more lawyers and doctors have applied in recent years besides business owners and executives," Wang said. "At the same time, we're seeing a group of younger emigrants."

But for many middle class professionals, leaving China is not the end of their problems.

Yang said what worries him most now is how to support his parents when they get old. "They wouldn't live [in Sydney] because there are no relatives or friends. And it's not possible for me to frequently visit them when I get busy with work."

Shi says it's a hard decision to make for people at her age - not young enough to start from scratch yet not old enough to have earned enough money to ensure an idyllic retirement life in a new country. She likened emigration to a luxury item: "Everybody wishes to own it but not everybody can afford it".

But at least it's getting affordable for more ordinary people.