The sense of uncertainty affects poorer Chinese, too. According to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, 800,000 Chinese were working abroad at the end of last year, versus 60,000 in 1990. Many are in small-scale businesses — taxi driving, fishing or farming — and worried that their class has missed out on China’s 30-year boom. Even though hundreds of millions of Chinese have been lifted from poverty during this period, the rich-poor gap in China is among the world’s widest, and the economy is increasingly dominated by large corporations, many of them state-run.
“It’s driven by a fear of losing out in China,” Oxford University demographer Biao Xiang (項彪) said. “Going abroad has become a kind of gambling that may bring you some opportunities.”
Zhang Ling, the owner of a restaurant in the coastal city of Wenzhou, is one such worrier. His extended family of farmers and tradesmen pooled its money to send his son to high school in Vancouver, British Columbia. The family hopes he will get into a Canadian university and one day gain permanent residency, perhaps allowing them all to move overseas.
“It’s like a chair with different legs,” Zhang said. “We want one leg in Canada just in case a leg breaks here.”
Emigration today is different from past decades. In the 1980s, students began going abroad, many of them staying when Western countries offered them residency after the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising. In the 1990s, poor Chinese migrants captured international attention by paying “snakeheads” to take them to the West, sometimes on cargo ships like the Golden Venture that ran aground off New York City in 1993.
Now, years of prosperity mean that millions of people have the means to emigrate legally, either through investment programs or by sending an offspring abroad to study in hopes of securing a long-term foothold.
Wang Ruijin, a secretary at a Beijing media company, said she and her husband were pushing their 23-year-old daughter to apply for graduate school in New Zealand, hoping she can stay and open the door for the family. They do not think she will get a scholarship, Wang said, so the family is borrowing money as a kind of long-term investment.
“We don’t feel that China is suitable for people like us,” Wang said. “To get ahead here you have to be corrupt or have connections; we prefer a stable life.”
Perhaps signaling that the Chinese government is concerned, the topic has been extensively debated in the official media. Fang Zhulan (方竹蘭), a professor at Renmin University in Beijing, wrote in the semi-official magazine People’s Forum that many people were “voting with their feet,” calling the exodus “a negative comment by entrepreneurs upon the protection and realization of their rights in the current system.”
The movement is not all one way. With economies stagnant in the West and job opportunities limited, the number of students returning to China was up 40 percent last year compared with the previous year.
The government has also established high-profile programs to lure back Chinese scientists and academics by temporarily offering various perks and privileges. However, Cao says these programs have achieved less than advertised.