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Expats leave Shanghai.  "You can no longer live a normal life here."

Expats leave Shanghai. “You can no longer live a normal life here.”

The pandemic has already weakened China’s expat community, but the Shanghai lockdown has triggered another mass exodus. This mass exodus will transform the global city: China loses an important connection with foreign countries.

Lynn Vervik

It was three in the morning when Ralph Kubitz realized it was time to leave China. Shanghai was in lockdown, and Koppitz and his family had just been locked up in their apartment for a week when three men in white suits showed up at their front door in the middle of the night. The dog began to bark, the 13-year-old daughter of Kobitz woke up, not knowing what had hit them.

“We were shocked, we thought something had happened and they wanted to take us to the central quarantine station,” Kobitz said by phone from Shanghai. But they were instructed by the local neighborhood commission that an antigen test should be done. Had to do it now, he couldn’t wait until 7 am. We had been thinking about leaving for a while, due to all the travel restrictions, but this was the turning point for us.

Kobitz, a German lawyer who has lived in China for 25 years, is one of many expats who will be leaving Shanghai and China in the near future. Kobitz and his family have kept their options open: they move to Berlin, but they keep their home in Shanghai, although they are ready to leave permanently. “If there is a major shift in Chinese policy, and normal travel becomes possible again, we will consider going back.”

Still strict procedures

While the expat community in China has already dwindled significantly due to the pandemic and travel restrictions, the lockdown in Shanghai has ushered in a new exodus. The European Chamber of Commerce estimates that the number of foreigners in China has already halved since the onset of Covid and could halve again this summer. Shanghai has been closed for more than two months this spring and is still subject to strict measures, raising fears of new lockdowns.

It is a mass exodus that will profoundly change global Shanghai and potentially reinforce current geopolitical developments. China is closing itself more and more to the outside world and getting more and more confused with the West. With the departure of large numbers of expatriates – often people with years of experience in China – an important relationship between China and abroad is disappearing.

“We’ve been good ambassadors for China,” says Kobitz. “When you’re here for a long time, you see things more nuanced. We’ve seen a lot of positive things and in the first year and a half of getting the virus we’ve been very happy with Chinese politics. We’ve seen lockdowns in Europe, while we’ve been living a great life in Shanghai. But things are getting tougher. Because China is not adjusting to the new normal.The whole world is opening up, but we still have travel restrictions and lockdowns.

The second wave of departure

Koppitz prefers not to leave. His family has their own business in China, his wife is Chinese, and his three children were born there. Due to travel restrictions since COVID and expensive flights, the family has had doubts for some time. Koppitz has not seen his two older children, who are studying at a university in Germany, in about two years. But it was the lockdown and the feeling of fear that made the difference.

It is a situation that can be seen among many expats in the current wave of departures. In the early months of the coronavirus outbreak, foreigners mostly left less close ties with China. Students, teachers of English, short-term workers and adventurers. But in this second wave, many foreigners are leaving China with decades of experience and an extensive network: entrepreneurs with their own businesses, mixed families with Chinese relatives.

Old-fashioned crowds in the Bund district of Shanghai, August 2020.Getty Images

land of possibilities

Take, for example, Olivier Vermast, the Belgian director of a Chinese robotics company, who has been living in Shanghai since 2008. This month he is moving with his family to Madrid. “When we got here, China was a magical place, a land of opportunity,” he says. China has been open and curious about foreigners. Now you see the focus is turning inward. China’s first speech has appeared.

Like many expats leaving now, Vermast has been contemplating a possible departure for some time. China’s economic opportunities have diminished and attitudes toward foreigners have become more negative. The latter has been exacerbated by Covid and the Chinese government’s tendency to blame any outbreak on foreigners. On the other hand, China also has advantages for a family with two young children, thanks to the relatively cheap household help.

Vermast and his Australian wife did not consider leaving until 2023, when their youngest daughter was just one year old. But the lockdown has speeded everything up. “Since mid-March, you can no longer live a normal life here and you are at risk of ending up in a closed center or quarantined again,” Vermast says. “No great added value to staying here. Besides, most of our friends are already gone.

The helping hand is lukewarm

For expats staying in Shanghai, the city portends becoming less and less attractive. International schools are losing students and teachers, Western restaurants are closing and the supply of imported products in stores is down. The Chinese government has announced that it will make it easier for teachers to travel to China and has shortened the hotel quarantine for incoming travelers. But the guidelines are so lukewarm that they make little impression.

“The number of foreigners will continue to decline and the atmosphere of Shanghai will change,” says Kobitz. He leaves with mixed feelings, but at the same time he is looking forward to being in Germany. He will finally see his children again, be able to travel, and feel no pressure because the neighborhood he lives in may be shut down. Friends who have already returned to Europe say it is incredible: people do not wear masks while they are comfortable. It is a weight that falls off your shoulders.

Arrivals in Shanghai

It is difficult to determine the extent of the departure of arrivals from Shanghai. In 2010, according to the 10-year census, there were 208,000 foreigners living in Shanghai (including 65,000 residents of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau). In 2019, the State Administration of Foreign Experts reported that 215,000 foreigners worked in Shanghai. In 2020, the number of foreigners decreased to 164 thousand according to the census. It is unclear whether the 2019 and 2020 definitions are identical.

In a survey conducted by Expatriate Magazine, This is Shanghai, During the lockdown, 48 percent of foreigners surveyed refused to want to leave within the year. The survey is not scientific and can also be a quick snapshot. In a survey by the British Chamber of Commerce in China, 40 per cent of teachers in international schools said they would leave this year.

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