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Beijing (AFP) – Colin Chan has spent more than a decade building his life in China, but after living through Covid’s changing rules and spending five weeks in detention, Singapore is convinced it’s time to leave.
China’s unwillingness to abandon its strict “zero-covid” policies is accelerating the departure of expatriates from the world’s second largest economic power, while business and financial circles are warning that unpredictable rules are driving foreigners away.
And when Chan returned to China from Singapore at the end of February, he was ready to undergo a long quarantine in Shanghai before returning to Beijing as the number of direct international flights to the capital dropped dramatically due to Covid.
But within days of arriving in Beijing, he was told to stay home for another two weeks while a device was installed on his door that would sound an alarm when opened.
“The restrictions have changed all the time,” said Chan, who left China this month after completing successive periods of detention.
He is among a large number of expats who have left China or are considering leaving.
More than 80 percent of businesses surveyed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce last month reported that China’s virus policies affected their ability to attract or retain foreign workers.
The British Chamber of Commerce said on Wednesday that the risk to businesses was at its “highest level since 2020”, when the virus spread rapidly in China at the beginning of the epidemic.
China’s strategy to impose rapid closures, severe travel restrictions and extended quarantine periods has succeeded in mitigating the spread of the virus in the first two years of the Covid crisis, enabling the population to resume their normal lives to a large extent to maintain.
But the outbreak of the fast-spreading mutant Omicron sent shock waves through as authorities scrambled to contain the pandemic waves by introducing a rapidly changing set of restrictions that tested the resilience of even long-term residents.
More than a third of companies surveyed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in March reported that their number of foreign workers had fallen by at least 10 percent due to Covid restrictions since the pandemic began.
Shanghai is perhaps the most prominent example of this, with its 25 million inhabitants shaking under a week-long collapse that has caused food shortages, sporadic protests and a wave of criticism online.
The city, which is a global economic center, boasts a large foreign community of about 164,000 people, according to statistics published last year. They work in various sectors from technology and finance to education in international schools.
But indications are that even the most tolerant of them may decide to leave.
A longtime resident of Shanghai told AFP he planned to leave for fear that the latest restriction was the beginning of a ‘really crazy trend’ in virus restriction policies.
“Zero Covid is now like a faith, a very established belief,” says the man, who asked not to be identified because he did not inform his workplace of his plan.
He added that for the Chinese authorities “it does not really matter if Covid is no longer so dangerous (now) … we have to get to zero” injuries at all costs.
In turn, Jens Hildebrandt of the German Chamber of Commerce in northern China warned that the closure measures “would have an impact in the long run.”
Indeed, the severe restrictions on access to the country have led multinational companies to struggle for months to bring in new experts after the existing ones have left.
It also exacerbates supply chain problems.
In a recent letter to China’s State Council and seen by AFP, the European Chamber of Commerce warned that Omicron poses challenges that seem insurmountable with the use of the “old instruments of extensive testing and isolation”.
The letter said that “the social and economic costs … to achieve this are increasing rapidly … It also unfortunately affects China’s image ahead of the rest of the world.”
Representatives of foreign trade groups met with Wang Wentao, Minister of Trade, last week to address the problems facing the companies, but it remains unclear whether the authorities will decide to ease restrictions.
‘A complete disaster’
Chinese President Xi Jinping said at the Boa Forum (similar to Davos) on Thursday that the control of the epidemic still requires “tough efforts”.
According to the Communist Party, its response to the epidemic has helped prevent a public health crisis, as has happened in other countries.
On the other hand, it was very exhausting.
British education consultant Rory Grimes, 40, who has lived in China for nine years, said the closure of Shanghai was a “total disaster”.
Grimes has been sleeping on a temporary bed since he tested positive for the virus days ago. He currently lives in a classroom in a school that has been converted into a group quarantine facility.
“You do not feel you are in a place to undergo treatment,” he told AFP. “There are no medical facilities here. It has more to do with achieving goals than it does with logic.”
© 2022 AFP