The Volokh Conspiracy

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Open the Door to Chinese Migrants Fleeing Brutal Covid Lockdowns

Taking this step is both a moral imperative, and the right way to advance US economic and strategic interests.




Over the last few months, residents of Shanghai and some other Chinese cities have endured brutal Covid lockdowns that include such cruelties as forcible separation of parents from children, starvation, and fatal denial of medical treatment to people needing it for non-covid emergencies. This, combined with other repressive government policies, has led increasing numbers of Chinese to consider emigration to the West:

Sick of their lives being dictated by pandemic measures — the frequent and sudden lockdowns, never-ending rounds of mass testing and constant uncertainty — Zhu hopes to move her family to Thailand as soon as possible and eventually immigrate to Europe or the United States.

"I feel like I'm having an emotional breakdown," she said. "I feel powerless. It's like an overbearing father telling you that this is all for your own sake. You just need to listen. Don't ask questions."

Zhu is one of a growing number of Chinese urban professionals subscribing to a new school of thought known as runxue, the study of how to "run" away from their home country. For many like Zhu, it is not just about China's severe "zero covid" policy, but what the future looks like in a society where politics — upholding the top leader's policies no matter the cost — trumps science and the well-being of residents whose day-to-day lives are subject to ever more state interference.

"It's migration driven by a sense of disillusion," said Xiang Biao, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany focusing on migration. "People are not running away from the virus. People are running away from such top-down measures and disregard of individuals' feelings and dignity."

Inquiries into emigrating have surged since chaotic lockdown measures were imposed in April on China's most populous city, Shanghai, where residents struggled to feed themselves and watched family members die after being unable to get medical attention for non-covid emergencies. The term runxue, or "the science of running," soon gained momentum online among disaffected residents in Shanghai and dozens of other Chinese cities under some form of lockdown.

Cruel zero-Covid policies are just one of the more extreme manifestations of a broader increase in Chinese government repression over the last few years. Other examples include a crackdown on democracy advocates in Hong Kong, the detention of some 1 million members of the Uighur minority in concentration camps (combined with extreme oppression of those Uighurs who remain "free"),  and expanding suppression of dissent even among the Han Chinese majority.

In fairness, when it comes to Covid lockdowns and other pandemic-era restrictions on liberty, the West's own record is far from spotless. Many Western nations, including the United States, perpetrated serious injustices of their own during the pandemic. But they did not go as far as China. And, as vaccination has spread, and evidence accumulates that lockdowns did little good and much harm, Western democracies have mostly ended Covid restrictions. China, by contrast, has doubled down.

The US and its allies would do well to open their doors to Chinese fleeing cruel "Zero Covid" policies and other repression. The most important reason to do so is moral: people have a right to be free of oppression, and it is unjust to bar those fleeing it merely because they happen to be born in the wrong place, or to the wrong parents.

But opening our doors to Chinese migrants also serves US economic and strategic interests. I summarized some of the reasons why in a 2020 post advocating openness to Chinese immigration, which is now even more relevant thanks to the escalation of Zero Covid cruelty:

Chinese immigrants… have been enormously productive in the US and other Western nations, thereby boosting the receiving nations' economies. It is also clear that the images of Chinese finding refuge from oppression by coming to the US would be a major boost to America's now-badly tarnished international reputation, and a blow to China's position in the international "war of ideas."

During the Cold War, American conservatives readily understood that welcoming refugees from Cuba, the Soviet Union, and other communist nations was a major boost to America's prestige and a blow to that of the communists. The better political system is the one people "vote with their feet" to live under, not the one many risked their lives to flee.

To the extent that China has emerged as our most important geopolitical competitor, the more of "their" talent comes here, the better for us, and the less extensive the human capital available to the Chinese government. The more talented Chinese are contributing to US economic and technological development rather than helping Xi Jinping's regime, the better.

What of the threat of espionage by Chinese immigrants? The rate of such spying is very low, indeed lower than among the US population as a whole. To the extent it is a problem, the way to deal with it is not by barring Chinese migrants generally, but by carefully screening anyone given access to classified national security information (which is an important safeguard regardless of whether the people in question are immigrants or not). When it comes to "open source" information, realistically China and other adversaries are likely to acquire what they want of it, regardless of how much immigration there is. That's one of the downsides of being a relatively open and free society. But the many upsides easily outweigh it.

Regular readers will notice that the case for openness to Chinese migrants made above is very similar to that which I made for opening doors to Russians fleeing Putin's regime, among others. There are indeed obvious parallels between the two cases. Both are situations where we can simultaneously do what is right, and advance US economic and strategic interests. In previous writings on both China and Russia, I have responded to the counterargument that letting in migrants from these countries would diminish pressure for liberalization there.

Ultimately, I believe we should open the door to all fleeing war and oppression, regardless of their nation of origin. But there is also good reason to support incremental progress, which in some cases is likely to be focused on those fleeing key US adversaries. At this point, China and Russia top the latter list.