The China Connection: A Quiet Flow of Chinese into the US


As an empty nester, I hadn’t had any thoughts about summer camps for many years until early this year. My nephew, a Beijinger, and his wife, had signed their son up for a summer camp at a private school in the Seattle area, where I live. They scouted out the school and completed the registration all by scaling the Great Firewall of China, and skillfully using a VPN (Virtual Private Network). They had both learned English over the years, had long had the plan, and could finally carry it out at the end of the three-year pandemic.

Life was not easy in those three years under a zero-Covid policy. People in China came up with ways to deal with it, expressed in terms such as “tang ping” or “lying flat,” “bai lan” or “let it rot,” and the more recent “quanzhi ernu” or “full-time children.” All were rejections of the rat race in the highly competitive Chinese society. Some saw in these expressions a passive resistance movement.

“Passive” may be misleading. Under all that seeming passivity is a truly robust movement called “run xue” or “run philosophy.” A clever play on a Chinese word meaning moisten, lubricate, smooth, or sleek that sounds like “run” in English. The “philosophy” grew out of the desperation among Chinese citizens under Covid lockdowns. It has now developed into a lively online forum, a hub, an information center for exploration and practice of ways of running away from China, by studying, working, or investing abroad. 

I saw the movement when the summer camp opened for my nephew’s son in Seattle. Not only were half of the families showing up Chinese, but also in two of his classes, my great nephew found out that his fellow campers were all from China. As his father said, many more Chinese families were traveling abroad this summer with the lifting of the pandemic restrictions.

But a summer camp in the U.S. is only the first step of a multi-year plan for these families — as was done by families “running” before them. For their kids to someday attend a good American college, the Chinese parents would first send their children to a summer camp, like this one in Seattle, for several summers if possible. Some families would have their kids start high school in the U.S. Others would continue to travel to attend summer schools or programs, for grades 9-12, at a desired American college so they can apply directly for that college afterwards.

“Run philosophy” has really become an open field of study for the masses in China. On Weibo, the most popular social media site, you can find pages upon pages where people talk about the immigration rules of various countries, offer tips on how to go about it, share experiences and pictures of their children or friends or themselves in various stages of “run.”

On a random page about “run philosophy,” for instance, there were posts about work visas and permanent residency in Northern European countries, about whether nursing, preschool teaching, and social work were better occupations for emigration, and about someone who successfully bought a home in Norway. Terms used in such pages included “run philosophy” masters, specialists, booklets, checklists, strategies, and skills.

There was also a hashtag “Summer camps 2023” on Weibo. On one page, there were posts by parents of their children at camps or summer schools in New York, Massachusetts, and Ontario. Under “American summer camps,” a “Harvard mom” alerted readers that the 2024 summer camp registration was already open. Someone else posted a video about a math camp in California. Another gave detailed information about a summer camp at an Arizona international school.

I was impressed that these Chinese parents, like my nephew and his wife, had spent years in meticulous and determined planning, from finances to travels, for their children’s college education abroad. I was also intrigued that millions of Chinese citizens and families are “studying” this “run philosophy” on China’s social media under the government’s watchful eyes.

Social media, like all media in China, is censored. If the government does not approve of  something, it is gone. That “run philosophy” has been allowed to thrive makes one wonder if the Chinese government encourages it or ignores it, especially when China faces demographic challenges with a fast-graying population and a fast-shrinking workforce and when more “runners” from China mean more Chinese getting uncensored news. 

Also, while “run philosophy” followers are most enthusiastic about the U.S. among various countries, U.S.-China relations are at perhaps the lowest point since the Nixon years. In China’s Baidu News, something like Google News, one finds stories about an America full of political chaos, dysfunctional government, mass shootings, racial tensions, homelessness, prison labor, child labor, drug overdoses, etc. Does a Chinese reader know about these? I asked my nephew. Nobody reads Baidu News, he replied, explaining that people like him get their news from social media.

So it seems that however awful China’s media portrays the U.S. or however grand Xi Jinping paints the Chinese dream, Chinese parents keep sending their kids to American summer camps or schools.

Though “run philosophy” as an online phenomena may be relatively new, Chinese citizens have been steadily emigrating since before the pandemic, as the Wall Street Journal reported in July. In late 2012, for instance, the net outflow was 125,000 people. In 2022, the number grew to 300,000, after a drop to 200,000 in 2021. In terms of college students, China still sent more to U.S. universities than any other country even during the pandemic, registering nearly 300,000 in the 2021-2022 school year, according to a story in the South China Morning Post.

For those unable to come to the U.S. through regular channels, there was the U.S.-Mexico border. As reported by the Voice of America, 4,366 migrants from China encountered the Border Patrol seeking asylum from October 2022 to February 2023, as compared to 421 in the same period in 2021 and 2022. Many had traveled through multiple countries.

And it’s not just ordinary families, students, and migrants going after a better education or livelihood abroad; China’s wealthy have also been “running.” Again as the WSJ reported, in the early 2000s, about 9,000 high-net-worth individuals with more than $1 million in assets, left China each year. For 2023, the estimate is 13,500, the highest out-immigration of the wealthy of any country. Business Insider described China as “leading the world in the number of lost millionaires.” 

Footloose or “voting with their feet,” as my nephew said, more and more Chinese citizens are reaching for their American dream. The United States, a nation of immigrants, a Washington Post piece suggested in July, could take advantage of this brain drain from China, increasingly a nation of emigrants. 

Wendy Liu
Wendy Liu
Wendy Liu of Mercer Island has been a consultant, translator, writer and interpreter. Her last book was tilted "My first impression of China--Washingtonians' First Trips to the Middle Kingdom."


  1. Be prepared for this cohort to be regarded with some suspicion, as industrial espionage and theft of intellectual property is a major element of China’s relationship to the US. See “China Initiative” DOJ program. Scrapped in 2022 – but conservative propagandists cite that as Biden accommodation to China.


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