These days, the hot topic in Shanghai is getting out of the city.
Last week, videos began circulating of long lines of people at the train station in the city, waiting to leave. Many of them were migrant workers who’d been out of a job for months.
One video that went viral featured interviews with people who had walked for hours or ridden their bikes to the station with luggage in tow.
Other people — those with money or an education — plan to leave China altogether. Shanghai is considered the most-advanced city in the country, and the fact that the lockdown has gone so poorly has been a wake-up call.
China's zero-COVID-19 policy has shattered many people's trust in the government, especially in Shanghai. The two-monthlong lockdown has left people exhausted and plotting to escape. The lockdown is set to end on June 1, but for some, the damage has already been done.
“I think a lot of people thought Shanghai would be an exception, and Shanghai could control things pretty well.”
“I think a lot of people thought Shanghai would be an exception, and Shanghai could control things pretty well,” Mimi Zhang said.
Zhang went to college in the US and then worked in Silicon Valley. She returned to China two years ago, splitting her time between Shanghai and her parent’s home in a nearby province.
Even though she escaped Shanghai’s lockdown, she said that she’s ready to make a life elsewhere.
“How could people imagine in the 21st century in China, there's no war and I am starving,” she said. “That is a very horrible thing, and that deepens people's fear about staying here.”
Zhang said that she will go abroad again to get her master’s degree and hopefully gain US citizenship. But the clock is ticking. China has stopped issuing new passports, and it’s discouraging international travel, except for emergencies.
Hamilton Li is an immigration lawyer in Shanghai. He said that he’s been getting a lot of calls. Li said that many of his clients are thinking about where they can move. Canada and Singapore are popular options.
Shanghai’s foreign population is clearing out, too.
K.F. is a South American woman who asked to use only her initials for privacy. She has been locked inside her high-rise apartment with her 8-year-old son for nearly three months. And the experience has taken its toll.
“I had no plans to leave China. But after this, my son developed depression and an eating disorder, and it’s cruel and inhumane to keep children locked inside apartments.”
“I had no plans to leave China,” she said. “But after this, my son developed depression and an eating disorder, and it’s cruel and inhumane to keep children locked inside apartments.”
She has lived in Shanghai for 16 years and said that it won’t be easy to pick up and go — but the zero-COVID-19 policy is driving her away. She said that she will make preparations to leave as soon as this lockdown is lifted.
“Because they’re not going to change the policy, and I can’t risk [going through] it again, so, I just decided that I’m done,” she said.
Krystal Soroko is from the Bahamas, but she grew up in Shanghai and calls it home. She said that she has no plans to leave, but she’s helping others in chat groups navigate the logistics of getting out.
“So, there’s just a lot of confusion over what is actually needed to leave,” she said.
Soroko has been giving advice on how to find a driver when taxis and subways aren’t running, where to get a bilingual COVID-19 test and the biggest one — how to persuade the housing compound to let you out. Sometimes, it requires a letter from the government.
“We’ve actually had some compounds who say, ‘No, we don’t care who calls us; you’re not leaving,’” she said.
This has been a huge problem for people who went ahead and booked flights out of Shanghai. Some were allowed to leave their compounds, but only if they promised not to return. Unlucky travelers whose flights were canceled wound up marooned at the airport.
Other people with flights out have been bringing food to share with stranded passengers.
One man was stuck at Pudong International Airport for five weeks. He declined an interview for this story, saying that he’s writing a screenplay about his experience.