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Why I Decided to Leave China for Good
My 6-year-long journey in China came to a permanent end this year, and I'm ready to explain why.
I lived in Shanghai, China from 2016 until the beginning of 2022. It has been an epic ride and I learned and gained so much during my years in China that this experience has completely transformed my life for the better.
However, over the past year or two I have gradually come to the conclusion that China is no longer a favourable place for a foreigner to reside in. And finally, after tying up loose ends, in January 2022 I took action to uproot my life in Shanghai and say goodbye to China permanently.
I write this as a “foreigner” brought up in the West but with Chinese family ties — you might say my circumstances have allowed me to be empathetic to both Western and Eastern perspectives.
To understand why my views on China changed so drastically over the past couple of years, let’s rewind time and understand why was it that so many young and ambitious Millennials like myself moved to China in the first place.
A Land of Opportunity
When I first moved to China in 2016 to pursue my dreams of starting my own business and living an exciting and flexible lifestyle, I did so because China was the country best positioned for young Millennials to attempt something like I did.
While stuck at my corporate job in Canada in 2015, I spent months doing online research everyday after work, looking for somewhere abroad with better weather and a better lifestyle that also offered opportunities for someone young and hungry to test his entrepreneurial chops.
After much deliberation, China was the unanimous answer. I watched tens of hours of YouTube videos by young 20-somethings living and doing business in China (shoutout to Tim and Nick at Enter China, and Rico at Source Find Asia) to understand what I was about to get into, and I even reached out to Rico (who has since become a friend) for a Skype call to hear first-hand his experiences starting a sourcing business in Guangzhou.
After all my research, my mind was made up and I quit my job and flew to China on a one-way ticket, with nothing concrete planned but armed with great enthusiasm and curiosity.
China in 2016 was a completely different place to what it has become today.
In 2016, China was what I would now describe as a perfect capitalist society. The culture of China was a culture of enterprise, hustle, hard work, and every man and woman fighting for their own and their family’s prosperity. Bureaucracy was efficient and not crippling, while the country was rather welcoming to foreigners.
It was refreshing and tremendously eye-opening for someone like me who had grown accustomed to the complacent and crab bucket socialist-leaning attitudes of Western society, where obsessive equality and virtue signalling have become more important societal values than hard work, intelligence, and grit.
The sheer amount of other 20-something Millennial hustlers and entrepreneurs I met in China in 2016-17 was incredible — there was no better place on Earth at that time if you wanted to meet like-minded individuals who were also trying to “make it” armed with nothing but ideas, hustle, a little bit of personal savings, and an appetite for risk and self-improvement. Shoutout especially to the “Pearl River Delta Clique” of 2016 (Zam, Alex, and Maurice) who not only inspired me but also provided valuable knowledge and emotional support when I was trying to get my feet off the ground at the start.
Over my years in China, I have met so many intelligent and entrepreneurial Millennials who did everything from running e-commerce businesses to SaaS startups to doing early investments in Bitcoin, and no other experience in my life would have eclipsed all the lessons and knowledge I’ve gleaned from these enterprising individuals.
Looking back, those early years in China felt like what people would describe “The American Dream” to be like — you come with ideas and some savings as startup capital, and you try to build a business or just create your own path. All the tools and resources for business were available in China — a country equipped with the best logistics network and production capability in the entire world.
Even socially, China felt free back then. Despite what Western media always portrayed as a gray, authoritarian and dystopian place, life in China in those years were rather the opposite. As an individual, you had tremendous freedom to live a fun and exciting life. You could eat and drink anywhere at anytime (what alcohol restrictions?), you could travel domestically or abroad, and as foreigners we had access to the best of both worlds — Western comforts and unique Chinese opportunities in major cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen. And perhaps most importantly, during those years the local Chinese attitude towards foreigners was still one of respect and curiosity.
Life in China during those years were fun, always exciting, and you could wake up every morning with anticipation. It was literally a playground of hustle and bustle with opportunities waiting for every person who was willing to put in the work to take advantage.
2018 and Beyond - the Hawkish Transition
As with everything in history, good times never last forever and human societies go through cycles of boom and bust, freedom and autocracy.
In 2018, something drastic happened and the winds of change were starting to be felt in China.
My theory is that during their annual party meeting in 2018, the CCP decided to enact a new 5-Year-Plan which focused on halting the liberalization and Westernization of China’s societal values, and to shift focus back to China’s national identity and strength the CCP’s control, to be achieved via various reforms and propaganda campaigns.
With the easy movement of information and people, first tier cities like Shanghai especially were becoming too international and the Party did not like it. They were concerned with the effects of globalization on China, the Westernization of thought and ideas permeating Chinese society, and they decided that it was time to act and put a stop to this trend immediately. Never mind just China and the CCP — crushing the independent thought and freewill of citizenry is always the first move of any authoritarian rulership playbook throughout the history of mankind.
As a result, various reforms were evident starting in 2018 which directly affected the way of life for foreigners (and less so, locals) in China.
Since 2018, there was a significant increase in online censorship especially towards VPN services, and significant reforms were made to foreigner work visa rules which made it nearly impossible for average foreigners without qualifications to legally stay in China beyond the year. Tighter measures on foreign-owned companies and higher income taxation of foreign citizens were also escalated year-on-year.
China started to send a strong and clear message, “from now on, you need us more than we need you.”
A year later, severe crackdowns on influential Chinese businessmen and celebrities started to follow suit. People like Jack Ma, who were once sensations and inspirations for every young person in China, were put under political pressure to lay low and stay out of sight. Subsequently, business restrictions were applied to these tech giants like Alibaba and Tencent, significantly curbing their power and influence on Chinese society. The same then followed with Chinese P2P lending companies, education companies, real estate giants, and even prominent celebrities in entertainment.
The message was clear, the CCP wanted to remind everyone domestically who was boss. They were to make sure that there would be no China equivalent of the US tech corporate superpowers with tremendous reach and influence in every aspect of society and politics (Amazon, Google, Apple).
In summary, from 2018 onwards, China’s ruling party mobilized a two-pronged attack — both reducing foreign cultural influence in China and culling the powers of influential domestic individuals.
COVID-19 and a Full Surveillance Society
I won’t speculate on the origin of the coronavirus because frankly I don’t have any information that is enough proof for me to believe one explanation or another. But the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on society, especially Chinese society, has been profound. The social changes were not only significant but they happened rapidly — so rapid that the majority of people in China have still not even realized to this day how their lives have already changed forever.
COVID prevention and control measures in China started in early-2020 as contact tracing via mobile apps, but within months it evolved into full scale surveillance via each individual’s mobile phone network provider, plus WeChat and Alipay, plus facial recognition AI cameras at every street corner. Perhaps COVID was just a convenient excuse, but a full surveillance society was inevitable in China with the technologies now available and the total dependence of everyone’s daily lives on these technologies.
In a way, this was evidence of the breakneck speed at which China has been developing and adopting technology in the recent decade. But of course, in this case it’s at the cost of the loss of individual privacy. Technology adoption is a slippery slope, and when it comes to giving more power to the authorities — you give them an inch and they will literally take everything.
It still amazes me to think that in 2016 when I first arrived in China, the majority of daily transactions were performed anonymously with physical cash. Merely a year after that, mobile payment went from less than 50% adoption to becoming the norm (95+%), and the likes of Didi (ride hailing) and shared bicycles were only on pilot in 2016, but had already become part of every citizen’s daily toolkit by 2018. But such has been China’s stunning speed when it comes to developments in infrastructure and tech user adoption.
Today, as I write this, anyone in China (local or foreigner) who has been somewhere or come into contact with someone of interest can be identified by the authorities within minutes, followed by a phone call and a home visit. As of 2021, Orwellian society was no longer a fantasy but already the living reality in China.
Feeling of Dread and Impending Doom
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the shifting of narrative from China to the world, Chinese authorities were able to redirect the blame to foreign countries for their “mishandling” of the international outbreak.
Merely months after the start of COVID-19, Chinese people had already forgotten about the origins of the virus but instead had been brainwashed into thinking that all new cases of infections were being imported by foreigners coming to China, since foreign countries did not execute effective lockdown measures to contain the initial spread of the virus. Suddenly, foreigners in China became the scapegoat, and praise for the government’s continuous closure of China’s international borders became loud among the patriotic citizenry.
With this narrative in place, living in China during 2021 meant that as an ordinary foreign person, it was absolutely crucial that you did not get sick (or let anyone know if you had a cold). Any display of illness with cold/flu-like symptoms would have raised significant suspicion and attention from local authorities (COVID or not), and a trip to a quarantine hospital plus an investigation would likely have followed. This scenario made me feel like I was living in a constant state of dread, with a feeling of impending doom knowing that if any evidence of illness was to arise the authorities could potentially do whatever they wanted with us.
There was no logic to all this chaos of course, but as everyone who’s ever lived in China knows, China runs on the following of top-down orders and not on logical reasoning by the common worker.
Luckily for us, China’s “zero COVID policy” has more or less held up during the latter parts of 2020 and the entirety of 2021, with no real outbreaks to bring about chaos to society.
However, the Omicron outbreak in Europe in late-2021 raised my alarm bells — it was a highly infectious variant of the virus despite its relative mildness. This worried me because the only metric that mattered here was the infectiousness — how many people will potentially be tested positive? The deadliness of the strain didn’t matter, because let me remind you, the system runs on metrics, quotas, and following orders, not on logic derived from statistical evidence.
Knowing the inhumane lockdown measures Chinese authorities were capable of, I was concerned that an outbreak in China would trigger such measures. This fear was the final straw that broke the camel’s back for me, and in November 2021 I made up my mind on leaving China for good by Chinese New Year 2022.
A New Paradigm
Fast forward to where we are in April 2022, an Omicron outbreak is happening in China and the inhuman lockdown measures are happening in Shanghai. The entire city of 25M+ people are all locked at home, with the gates of their residential compounds locked and barred off, and guarded by “pandemic control” staff and even PLA soldiers. There have been evidences of citizens protesting due to the lack of essentials available like food and water, but of course little footage of these events are visible on China’s “intranet”.
Recent geopolitical events (Russia vs Ukraine) have accelerated the bifurcation of the world into West vs East, and with international borders closed (for 2 years now) and entire cities under brutal lockdown, from an ordinary citizen’s view the situation inside China is perhaps not so different from that of inside Russia.
Some days I think back fondly to my time in China in 2016-17 and remember the feelings I had, where everything felt possible and opportunities seemed to be around every corner. Unfortunately, those days are forever gone now and China has entered a new era that will once again resemble the state of things some ~30 years ago prior to the opening of its borders and economy. Most of us are too young to understand how it was like to live in a police state without personal freedom of movement — not being able to come and go as you wish, but the cycles of history are now reminding us that what happened in the past is likely going to happen again.
Some may say that the changes China is going through are justified and for the sake of the national interest, and they may be right. Ordinary Chinese citizens living in China certainly have not noticed any adverse effects on their everyday lives (aside from foreign vacations being no longer possible) and that’s good enough for most of them. However, for any individual who appreciates their personal freedom, especially the freedom of movement — the time to get out was yesterday.
It’s a shame because China is a huge country with such beautiful and varied landscape, culture, and food, and is a country really worth exploring for any individual. I sincerely hope that one day we’ll get the opportunity to do so freely again.