After suffering through the worst pollution for the month of March in recent memory, things were looking up with a spate of relatively decent air quality earlier this month; but sadly, the air quality has degraded to "back to normal" since then: As of 10:00am this morning the AQI was at a "Very Unhealthy" (but typical) 254.
In the meantime many outside observers seem to have developed a morbid fascination with our city’s pollution woes, as evidenced by the steady stream of media coverage on the subject.
None of this is coverage is news to us living here – dealing with noxious air is the new normal for Beijing residents. But even as some families are finding ways to cope – others, especially expat families, are leaving Beijing for cleaner pastures according to recent articles in the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and New York Times.
Says the NYT (emphasis added, VPN required):
Parents are confining sons and daughters to their homes, even if it means keeping them away from friends. Schools are canceling outdoor activities and field trips. Parents with means are choosing schools based on air-filtration systems, and some international schools have built gigantic, futuristic-looking domes over sports fields to ensure healthy breathing. “I hope in the future we’ll move to a foreign country,” Ms. Zhang, a lawyer, said as her ailing son, Wu Xiaotian, played on a mat in their apartment, near a new air purifier. “Otherwise we’ll choke to death.”
She is not alone in looking to leave. Some middle- and upper-class Chinese parents and expatriates have already begun leaving China, a trend that executives say could result in a huge loss of talent and experience. Foreign parents are also turning down prestigious jobs or negotiating for hardship pay from their employers, citing the pollution. There are no statistics for the flight, and many people are still eager to come work in Beijing, but talk of leaving is gaining urgency around the capital and on Chinese microblogs and parenting forums. Chinese are also discussing holidays to what they call the “clean-air destinations” of Tibet, Hainan and Fujian.
And the WSJ has this anecdote:
After Beijing’s air-pollution readings soared in January, local executives for German auto maker BMW AG received bad news: several candidates for midlevel expatriate jobs withdrew their applications. “They called and said they no longer had the support of their families,” said Kirk Cordill, managing director and CEO of BMW Group Financial Services China.
BMW isn’t alone. The European Union Chamber of Commerce in China says air pollution is a key challenge facing companies here, and is an underlying reason why many expatriate workers choose to leave. Soaring levels of pollution are driving expatriates out of Chinese cities, and dissuading others from coming. That is a problem for many multinationals who need to attract some of their brightest and most experienced executives to China at a time when the Chinese market is becoming central to their global success. Volkswagen AG, for instance, is managed in China by Jochem Heizmann, a member of VW’s global management board.
The "China expat exodus" meme is nothing new in the international media – indeed, some "on-the-ground" observers have called the entire trend into question in the past – so perhaps this latest round of media buzz should also be taken with a grain of salt.
Nevertheless it seems that beyond mere bogus trend spotting, there may indeed be something to the notion of family flight this time around – the issues compelling many to leave go well beyond bad air.
Beijing, of course, still offers many reasons for those who choose to continue living here (including yours truly, at least for now); and the capital’s dynamic international community, multi-faceted cultures and fast-paced changes this city should still be reason enough for others to come.
But I must admit that I remain conflicted as anyone about whether staying here is really good for my family in the long run (not to mention how I also feel extremely fortunate for having the privilege of even being able to consider leaving).*
As I presume it is with other families in Beijing’s international community we have many, many good reasons to stay, but the reasons to leave continue to mount (at some point it literally may come down to making a list of both and tallying the numbers).
Ultimately it’s not for anyone but us to decide (or judge) and the same should apply to every family in our position in Beijing.
If you’re reading this from overseas and considering a move over now I’d still advise you to take up the opportunity and come – being able to experience what this city has to offer at this remarkable point in its history is truly a privilege and I certainly have no regrets about coming here.
But I would include a few caveats: Temper your expectations, keep an open mind, understand your own family’s needs and priorities very thoroughly, and most importantly, have an idea of how and when you will leave.
*But then again, reading news like this makes me wary of going back.