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China’s Best and Brightest Jump Ship

Don’t anybody tell Tom Friedman, but educated Chinese are leaving the Middle Kingdom in droves. As the New York Times reports, 508,000 people left China for the 34 countries in the OECD in 2010 (the last year with complete data):

Individual countries report the trend continuing. In 2011, the United States received 87,000 permanent residents from China, up from 70,000 the year before. Chinese immigrants are driving real estate booms in places as varied as Midtown Manhattan, where some enterprising agents are learning Mandarin, to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, which offers a route to a European Union passport.

Few emigrants from China cite politics, but it underlies many of their concerns. They talk about a development-at-all-costs strategy that has ruined the environment, as well as a deteriorating social and moral fabric that makes China feel like a chillier place than when they were growing up. Over all, there is a sense that despite all the gains in recent decades, China’s political and social trajectory is still highly uncertain.

“People who are middle class in China don’t feel secure for their future and especially for their children’s future,” said Cao Cong, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham who has studied Chinese migration. “They don’t think the political situation is stable.”

This is especially troubling as China loses low-skilled jobs to lower-wage countries elsewhere in Southeast Asia. China’s future success will depend on whether it can translate the industrial boom of the past few decades into a more sophisticated service economy. High-skilled professionals are key to this transition; China cannot afford to lose them.

Yet losing them it is. Some emigrate to countries that have more civil liberties. Some are anticipating a political worst-case scenario and want a back-up residence and passport—a foreign bolt-hole. Others simply think that they will have more opportunities outside China, where merit matters more than party connections.

We’ve noted in the past that Asia has recently replaced Latin America as the largest source of immigrants to the United States; as long as so many Chinese are restless, that trend is likely to contine.


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