Stepping Out for Some Air: Pollution & Emigration in China

Let’s say you’re a recent college graduate in China.  Since China is the largest exporter of international students, it’s possible you’ve spent some time abroad during school, maybe in New York.  You’ve come home, and you’re looking for an exciting career opportunity balanced with a desire to see your family from time to time. This new job will probably bring you to one of China’s cities, let’s say Beijing.  As you settle into your morning routine, perhaps you’ll find yourself checking the news and the AQI (air quality index) before you leave for the day.  As you put on a mask to step outside, it’s not hard to imagine the volume of emigration driven by China’s urban pollution.

The mounting evidence that pollution is a key contributor to the exodus of brain and capital should alarm Chinese economists and environmentalists alike.  A study published in January 2018 by Yu Qin and Hongjia Zhu in the Journal of Population Economics found a correlation between low air quality days and increased interest in emigration in Chinese internet searches.  In a fairly obvious quality of life conclusion, the effect magnifies the worse air quality gets, with Beijing’s citizens showing the strongest effect. But citizens have reason to take their searches seriously: in 2012 an estimated 1 million people died as a result of air pollution in China.

What group actually decides to pack up and go is shifting, too. Emigration is much easier with the resources to relocate, meaning the wealthiest are the first to leave as air quality worsens.  According to a 2016 report by Biao Xiang with the Migration Policy Institute, emigrants fall into two divergent categories: highly skilled and/or wealthy and low or unskilled.  Over the past two decades, the rate of low-skilled emigration had stagnated while skilled/wealthy was rising quickly, with the emigration of educated citizens at five times the national rate.  Furthermore, in a survey conducted by New Fortune Magazine, 

More than 70% of the wealthy chose the quality of the environment and health care as important factors in a decision to emigrate.

If you’re wondering if they’ll return, the 2016 Hurun Report of the richest Chinese cited pollution in the top three reasons that the wealthy leave the country permanently.  Adding a pull effect to pollution’s push, many countries sponsor visas for immigrants who make significant investments (such as EB-5 Visas in the United States, of which Chinese nationals make up 85%), incentivizing the wealthy to relocate.

Back to you, our recent graduate: you discover “an increasing shortage of well-paid jobs for college graduates in China” to add to health concerns related to air pollution.  While this brings the relative value of studying abroad into question for future generations of college students, the current graduating cohort faces reduced opportunity at home and decide to stay abroad.  The dual incentives of jobs and clean air luring students elsewhere represents a backfire of China’s investment in human capital through study abroad.  

Air pollution is a byproduct of rapid development that has generated massive wealth in China.  Its effect on health and quality of life, however, are driving people and resources toward bluer skies.  As China’s economy evolves, air quality management will prove critical in retaining and repatriating the country’s most resourced contributors.