SHANGHAI - Shanghai's heavy-handed COVID-19 lockdown is driving scores of foreign residents to flee the commercial centre, denting the appeal of mainland China's most cosmopolitan city and prompting others to rethink their futures in the metropolis.
While no official statistics are available for departures in recent weeks, pet movers, property agents and law firms say they are seeing a sharp uptick in departure queries, while online chat groups swapping advice on how to leave the city amid lockdown curbs have swelled.
"Normally we get about 30-40 cases a month but we got over 60 in April," said Michael Faung, founder of international pet movers Shanghai M&D pet.
The city of 25 million is the China base for numerous multinational firms and long a magnet for expats lured by the international vibe of areas such as the French Concession, where boutiques and cafes line tree-shaded lanes.
But China has seen a steady drain in foreigners since the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan and subsequent entry restrictions have slowed new entrants to a trickle.
Shanghai was officially home to 164,000 foreign residents last year. That compares to 215,000 work visa holders in 2018, according to government data, which did not count their dependents.
The last straw for many has been the month-long lockdown, 10 foreign residents told Reuters, describing how they had difficulties obtaining food and fears of being separated from family members should they be infected with COVID.
"Until the lockdown I really couldn't feel the authoritarian government, because you're more or less free to do what you want and I never really lived oppressed," said Jennifer Li, a foreigner who is making plans for her family to leave the city that has been their home for 11 years.
The handling of COVID "made us realise how human lives and human mental health is not important to this government," she added.
The Shanghai government did not respond to a request for comment. China says it must stick with its zero-tolerance approach given the danger the Omicron variant posed to people with underlying health conditions, the elderly and unvaccinated.
Foreign business chambers have warned of foreign talent flight.
The "number of foreigners in China have halved since pandemic began and could halve again this summer," said Joerg Wuttke, president of the European Chamber of Commerce at a recent forum.
"Europeans, including the Brits, will not even fill the Beijing Bird's nest stadium, a capacity of 80,000," Wuttke added.
British international school Wellington College International Shanghai, which charges up to 348,000 yuan ($53,270) a year, sent a letter to parents on April 15 noting that some of its teachers wanted to return home.
It also said it understood that some families were reconsidering their future in Shangahi and extended a deadline for parents to withdraw their children from the school, according to a copy of the letter seen by Reuters.
Wellington College did not respond to a request for comment.
An April American Chamber of Commerce survey found 44.3% of respondents said they would lose expatriate staff if the current COVID restrictions remain in place for the next year.
Shanghai's curbs were initally set to last only five days but have stretched into their fourth week with little clarity on when they may lift.
Some of those who managed to leave describe harrowing efforts to reach the airport, from paying $500 for a cab that usually costs $30, battling neighbourhood workers who block departures, to being stranded at the airport after their flights were abruptly cancelled.
One described how she and her five-month old daughter spent nearly a week sleeping on the floor of Pudong Airport, running out of food, when issues with documentation for her baby meant she couldn't board her flight. The lockdown has shuttered visa offices and many administrative firms in the city.
The woman does not plan on returning to Shanghai, declining to give her name due to privacy reasons.
"With what I have faced, let me just go back to my country and do something there," she said.
Pudong airport did not respond to a request for comment. ($1 = 6.5327 Chinese yuan renminbi)
(Reporting by Engen Tham in Shanghai and Xie Yu in Hong Kong Additional reporting by Zoey Zhang and David Stanway in Shanghai; Editing by Brenda Goh and Lincoln Feast.)