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Some leaving China as political controls tighten and job prospects wane

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

While China's economic recovery struggles to gain momentum, government statistics indicate that businesses and households are moving money overseas at the fastest rate in seven years. For this week's NPR China series, our correspondent Anthony Kuhn went to Tokyo, where he met some middle-class Chinese citizens who are choosing to move their money and families not to the U.S., but to Japan.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: For one former Beijing-based journalist, immigration went from being a story he researched to one he lived himself. He made the move to Japan last year. He wants to protect family still in China, so he asked that his name and voice not be used. In China, he used to move in elite circles. His successful and affluent friends were often cheerleaders for Chinese government policies until strict COVID lockdowns trapped them in their homes. Here's what he says in Chinese.

(Through interpreter) They discovered their advanced degrees, money and connections could not help them with their most basic travel and living needs, and it was a big blow to them.

And that's why some of these friends joined the exodus from China. Last year, one of China's most popular buzzwords was runology, a pun referring to the art and science of emigrating. This year, China's middle class still has plenty of reasons to vote with their feet - a government crackdown on tycoons, a faltering real estate sector and geopolitical jousting with the U.S. But the journalist says that for people like himself, it basically boils down to three things. He says in Chinese...

(Through interpreter) One is your children's education and medical care. The other is the long-term safety of your family's assets. And for people in the fields of culture and media, there's another demand, which is freedom of thought and speech.

He says that moving to Japan emboldened some Chinese to criticize their government. Others, like himself, though, are more careful, he says, because authorities sometimes pressure their relatives in China to pressure them to keep quiet. Of course, he says, there are workarounds. For example, he says, in Chinese...

(Through interpreter) If you write a letter to your mother stating that you've severed relations with her and she gives that to the police, then they may stop bothering her.

Some worried parents won't resort to this workaround, he adds, even if it's just a tactic to get the authorities off their backs. China's government tries to prevent capital flight by limiting how much money citizens can take out of the country. But many of those who do manage to get their money out are investing in Japanese real estate. A Chinese consultant surnamed Liu, who advises Chinese investing in Japan, says her clients prefer to buy homes in Tokyo's posh apartment towers. She asked that we only use her last name because immigration is now a sensitive issue in China.

LIU: (Through interpreter) In Tokyo, I advise them to purchase property near subway stations or those which have a view of Tokyo Tower, because I'm sure their price won't go down.

KUHN: Of course, Chinese have been emigrating, sojourning and going into exile in Japan for a long time. They include people like statesman Sun Yat-sen. In the early 1900s, Sun organized a revolutionary party based in Japan that overthrew the last Chinese imperial dynasty. Tokyo University China expert Akio Takahara explains.

AKIO TAKAHARA: A hundred years ago, all those revolutionaries came to Japan and found Japan as a good base, as it were, to prepare for the political change. And it is possible that Japan will play some kind of a role similar to that in the future.

KUHN: Conditions for that are not ripe now, he says. But Chinese can still inject some much-needed vitality into Japan's aging and shrinking workforce. To make that work, Takahara says, both sides need to adapt to each other.

TAKAHARA: Japanese will have to find a way to coexist in a peaceful and comfortable way. So that is going to be a challenge to the Japanese society.

KUHN: And, he says, Japan will have to manage risks such as immigrants driving up real estate prices or even working as agents of China's government. Still, Japan continues to be attractive to immigrants from China, partly because they're bound together not just by geography, but also by shared cultural traditions.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

KUHN: You can see that at the One Way Street bookstore in Tokyo's Ginza district, where people come to read and buy books and listen to lectures in Chinese. Bookstores in mainland China used to hold symposia like these where ideas and current events were debated, but in the current political environment, that's no longer possible. One of the speakers is Hu Ang, a professor of architecture at Tokyo University. He explains what brought him to settle in Japan.

HU ANG: (Through interpreter) In Kyoto, you can see the graceful architectural style of Tang and Song dynasty China. It's preserved in some places in China, but the place to find traditional Chinese culture preserved in a systematic and complete way is actually in Japan.

KUHN: Hu studied in the U.S. and taught at Oxford. But he says it was not until he came to Japan that he felt he returned to his cultural roots.

HU: (Through interpreter) When you see so many beautiful gardens and traditional architecture, it helps you to see your cultural lineage clearly, and slowly, the feeling of recognizing your mother culture comes to you.

KUHN: And that sense of belonging could make the difference between a feeling of going into exile, or emigrating, or coming home.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Tokyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.