Photo by Ling Tang

As a highly educated individual who attended a top university in China and the West, I was once part of the middle-class lifestyle in Beijing, Shanghai, or Shenzhen while working for a tech company at the forefront of China's tech rivalry with the United States. However, I am now part of an exodus of Chinese professionals leaving China to live and work in developed countries worldwide. This exodus is not limited to young people or entrepreneurs. Even well-educated middle-class Chinese individuals are seeking to escape political oppression, bleak economic prospects, and grueling work cultures in China.

Many of us, including myself, who have worked on projects involving artificial intelligence at Baidu or Alibaba, two of China's biggest tech companies, left China primarily due to the social and political environment, particularly after China abolished the term limit for the presidency in 2018. This move allowed its top leader, Xi Jinping, to stay in power indefinitely. Like me, others have said that they do not plan to return to China until it becomes a democratic country that enables its people to live without fear. As a result, we have all decided to uproot our lives and start over in foreign countries. In my case, I now work for Meta in London.

In an interview, several other Chinese tech professionals shared their reasons for leaving China. Despite high pay in China's tech industry, many have moved to countries other than the United States. Unfortunately, China is currently experiencing a brain drain, and the United States is not taking full advantage of this situation. In the past, China's best and brightest were drawn to study and work in the West. However, now that China has become a tech power and the world's second-biggest economy, the Chinese government is trying to keep skilled people from leaving by offering incentives to lure them back.

According to the United Nations, emigration from China peaked in 1992, with over 870,000 people leaving the country. However, that number fell to a low of approximately 125,000 in 2012. In 2016, the Chinese Ministry of Education reported that over 80 percent of Chinese who studied abroad returned home, up significantly from about a quarter two decades earlier. 

The Chinese government is, therefore, making efforts to retain talented individuals. However, the main driving force behind those leaving is the lack of democracy, economic opportunities, and poor working conditions, not a lack of incentives. As such, China risks losing some of its top talent, which could have negative consequences for the country's economy, technology, and innovation.