In the middle of 1949, the Communists were about to take the whole of China; Chiang Kai-shek and his Republic of China government fled to Taiwan; and privileged Chinese with money and high social status faced a choice: to go or to stay. The choice to be made by some would turn out to be fatal. The People’s Republic of China started to impose very strict control on Chinese citizens’ exit from the country in the middle 1950s.
Those who left before that were mostly safe and moved on in life. Those who stayed, also including overseas Chinese who returned around the time with the aspiration of building the new China, would suffer endless miseries in the next decades – the dispossession of assets, political purging, famine and the Chinese version of Gulag. Many died of unjustified execution, physical torture or by their own hands.
Escape while the gates are still open
This episode of history has in recent years often been mentioned on Chinese social media. The moral is that one must have a clear head and be decisive when it’s time to go. Since last year, however, discussion about it is less heard. It seemed a consensus was already reached: Run quick! The day might come when the country shuts its gates completely or other countries close theirs to the Chinese.
The term Runology (润学) was coined, which is about where to run to, how to get a residence permit or a passport from another country, and practicalities such as how to circumvent China’s financial control to move assets overseas and how to find good schools for children.
What is discussed here in this article are not the students who go to western countries independently to attend college or graduate school. Part of these students definitely intends to use education as a means also for the Run. There are also running low-income earners who would first land in Central America, and then risk their lives to trudge all the way to the US as illegal immigrants.
Our focus here is more relatively wealthy people who already have established careers and their own families in China, aging mid-thirties and above.
Emigration: Corrupt officials were only the vanguard
Emigration caused by mistrust of the Communist Party’s regime started in the early 2000s when the booming Chinese economy started to generate billionaires – mainly business people, corrupt officials and superstars. Popular destinations for them, and their spouses and children, were Canada, the United States and Australia.
But not many of them would settle down in these companies. They obtained residence permits or citizenships more to safeguard their assets against a capricious regime and to have a safe haven for the still-unlikely event of a dangerous political environment in China.
The children of these people would go to school or university there, sometimes accompanied by their mothers. The other adults would return to China after their legal status in the hosting country was secured. Some would travel back and forth. Back then, China was still the place to make easy money. (The corrupt officials wouldn’t because they are on the run.)
While the number of rich Chinese increased in the following years, more emigration opportunities also emerged, especially in Europe. In the wake of the financial crisis in 2008, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Malta all launched “investment for passport” programs. Benefitting from these schemes are not only “the super-rich”, but also “the quite-rich”.
One of the favorite perks of these countries is the high-quality, low-cost education for children. Indeed, education has become a main theme for emigration since 2013, when the Chinese government has been tightening the reins on ideological contents at all levels of education. The concern for a brainwashed next generation became the top reason for the Run of many middle-class people.
The actual exodus was triggered by the lockdown
Then came Covid, which triggered draconian measures strengthening surveillance of people’s activities while limiting their freedom to travel, both in and out of the country. Anxieties and frustration went through the ceiling.
But Runology was born and became a hot word only after Shanghai, the most sophisticated, cosmopolitan city, was put under strict lockdown for three months. Reports that many people in this prosperous city didn’t have enough food for weeks and were blocked from necessary medical services spooked everybody in the country who still has some ability to think independently.
The disaster in Shanghai was a moment of truth. Many realized that under an insane leader and a party unable to correct itself, man-made catastrophes like the great famine between 1959-1961 are not impossible.
What is at stake now is not only assets and children’s education and future, but also the survival of everybody in the family.
The Shanghai lockdown was lifted in June. Two months later, threats came from another front: Taiwan. After US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island, a series of moves by China and counter-moves by the US and its allies all pointed to a serious escalation of the probability of military conflicts.
There is no indication whatsoever that Xi Jinping would back away from his determination for a more totalitarian regime and from his ambition to “reunite Taiwan with the motherland”. A feeling of suspense is in the air in anticipation of the next piece of bad news. In an atmosphere like this, Runology will continue to be knowledge to be pursued in China.