Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
The leaders of the world’s two largest autocracies, China and Russia, like to promote themselves by contrasting their countries with the West, declaring their top-down regimes superior to Western-style democracy. But, as China’s President Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin tighten the screws of repression, growing numbers of their citizens have decided they’ve had enough.
The practice of “voting with your feet,” or leaving the country, is telling the story for people who could go to prison for expressing their views openly.
For some, escaping from autocracy is becoming more and more attractive.
In China, the term is “run xue,” or “run philosophy.” The expression – so far not blocked by Chinese web censors – is drawing intense interest online. On Zhihu, a Chinese online question and answer forum, a “run xue” page received almost 9.2 million views.
The most dramatic evidence of the pressure to escape is the number of applications for asylum. Most people don’t take that route; most go through a normal process of emigration, perhaps looking for a job, applying to school or making an investment abroad to obtain a visa. But the last resort is the asylum process, which is complicated.
Since Xi took power in China in 2013, the number of asylum applications has grown nearly eight times, reaching nearly 120,000 last year, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency, with about 75% of asylum-seekers requesting to live in the United States.
The overwhelming number of asylum-seekers last year was just the tip of the iceberg. Those leaving through formal channels are usually middle and upper class. Others, like Wang Qun, who allowed CNN to follow his odyssey from China to the United States, trekked across the globe to reach the US-Mexico border.
Wang was clear about the motivation behind his decision to leave China, telling CNN, “In the years after Xi Jinping came to power, China’s policies have become tighter and tighter, the economy is not doing great…and (his) dictatorship is only getting worse.”
Xi is not the first authoritarian leader in China, but his ruthlessness and ambition far exceed most of his recent predecessors. He even has paved his way to potentially govern for life, if he so wishes.
Under Xi’s direction, the regime set up what they call “vocational training centers,” which China says are fighting religious terrorism and separatism, but critics in the international community have denounced as a “genocide.”
And in Hong Kong, the regime cracked down hard on freedom of expression and essentially reneged on Beijing’s signed commitment to allow Hong Kong to run its own affairs democratically until 2047. Beijing’s brutal squelching of Hong Kong’s freedoms has triggered a huge wave of emigration, the biggest since the government started tracking figures in 1961.
In the mainland, the last straw for many has been Xi’s nightmarish zero-Covid policy, a draconian push to stamp out every trace of the coronavirus. China’s anti-Covid campaign made just about every other country’s seem half-hearted. Entire cities have been slammed, completely shuttered over a handful of cases, leaving people confined to their homes for weeks, sometimes without enough food.
That would have been unthinkable in a democracy.
Then there’s Russia, led by Putin, Xi’s partner in promoting authoritarianism.
Much as the Chinese have, millions of Russians have chosen to ignore or at least tolerate Putin’s repression as long as the economy was doing well. Putin’s approval ratings, to the extent they can be believed, remain sky high. He has enjoyed strong – but not absolute – popular support, in large part because he controls the media, feeding the people a steady diet of propaganda. Those who have dared criticize his rule – which, like Xi’s, could continue in power for as long as he wishes – have found themselves imprisoned, poisoned or both. Others have met unfortunate “accidents,” such as falling out of windows. It’s enough to make most choose to keep their noses out of politics.
But when Russia invaded Ukraine, repression intensified, making it increasingly intolerable for many to live under Putin’s rules. The Orwellian rules – such as banning the use of the word “war” to describe, well, the war – made living in Russia and preserving one’s integrity almost impossible for those who know the truth and reject what their country is doing. One woman, for example, stood in a Moscow square holding a scrap of paper that read, “Two words.” The unuttered words, for which so many had been arrested, were probably, “Nyet voinye,” or “no to war.” She was arrested within seconds.
There are no precise statistics, but Google searches for “How to leave Russia,” hit a 10-year high. By mid-March, one Russian economist calculated 200,000 people had left. A migration expert estimated that another 100,000 already abroad decided not to return. Up to two million are thought to have left since Putin took power. Driven by the troubling demographics, Putin just revived a Stalin-era award, the “Mother Heroine,” rewarding women who have 10 children with a million rubles, about $16,500.
New groups of exiles sprang up in the Republic of Georgia, Armenia and Turkey, and tens of thousands streamed out to Australia, the United States, Israel (spurred by a resurgence of antisemitism) and elsewhere.
That was five months ago. Now, as Putin’s war approaches its six-month milestone without victory, the crackdown on dissent shows no sign of easing.
The first rush out of the country included those who felt most directly threatened – political activists, writers, artists. Now a second wave has risen. It includes some who had sought to keep their head down: business owners, families, everyday people who want out of a system that is not just trying to conquer its neighbor and crush criticism at home but is also becoming an international pariah.
Putin and Xi will continue to claim their systems are superior to democracy. They will point to the flaws, to the struggles of democratic systems, which certainly exist. But those who disagree with them at home, unable to speak out, will either keep quiet, keep their criticism to barely-audible whispers, or vote with their feet, heading toward freer lands.