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In Search of New Pastures: Why China’s “Runologists” are Flocking to all SEA Home

October 11, 2023

COVID-19 was an unprecedented time in world history. As the virus gripped nations allover the globe, it inevitably changed the mindsets and attitudes of people. This was especially true in China, where a series of long-drawn lockdowns gave rise to the phenomenon of “runology”.

Not to be confused with the study of runes in German linguistics, this term was coined by Chinese netizens back in early 2022. It first went viral during the two month-long lockdown in Shanghai which left residents confined to their homes.

“Runology”, or runxue in Chinese, isa play on the Chinese character 润, which means “profitable” in Chinese, but also sounds like the English word “run”. Added to the character for “study” (学), the two words form the newly-invented phrase “runology”, or the study of running away.

The term has put into words China’s growing interest in emigration that escalated during the pandemic. China’s “forever lockdowns” and zero COVID policy have made many of their residents reconsider staying in the nation.

In order to have a safety net in case of another similar crisis, and hedge against economic risks at home, many have embraced the ‘run philosophy’ by turning their eyes abroad.

Freedom, especially the ability to move in and out of a country without restriction, has become an important ideal to the general Chinese populace amid the pandemic, and has driven many to consider settling overseas.

Although not everyone is touting emigration as the only solution, a good number of Chinese residents see it as a viable alternative.

Living The Dream

The US and Australia have traditionally been popular destinations for Chinese emigrants, but rising interest rates in these countries recently have brought many to Southeast Asia (SEA) instead. This is a major pull factor – a lower cost of living in some of these SEA nations allow middle-class Chinese to live the “millionaire lifestyle”.

They are able to afford luxurious condominiums or landed properties, huge upgrades from cramped apartment flats back home, without pinching their pockets. Low-cost, high-quality education at international schools in these countries are also a draw for Chinese emigrants with young children.

Besides the cost of living, SEA nations are largely seen as safe options for Chinese in light of China’s political ties with these countries. This is especially so compared to China’s weakening relations with Western countries that were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Rifts over the virus’ origin and trade deals have made countries like Australia a less viable option for Chinese emigrants looking to relocate.

A Tide of Interest in Thailand

Out of the various options for real estate investment in SEA, Thailand stands out. The well-known tourist destination has become a popular landing spot for many Chinese investors, with this group making up two-thirds of the total property sales to foreigners in the first half of 2021.

This trend has not slowed down either – the Singapore International School of Bangkok reported that Chinese students makeup 68 per cent of their foreign students in March 2023, a twofold increase compared to the same month the previous year.

Besides affordable education, Thailand also provides alluring locations – from bustling Bangkok to coastal Chonburi, emigrants can take their pick. Along with a number of other SEA countries, Thailand’s vast sceneries allow emigrants to relocate to their dream location at an affordable cost.

Notably, this uptake in interest from Chinese emigrants have helped bolster Thailand’s property market which is still reeling from COVID-19. The second quarter of 2022 saw improved earnings for local property developers in spite of the country’s slowing economy and rising construction costs.

The Thai government has taken notice of this trend, and recently proposed to allow foreigners to own about 1,600 square meters of land in the country in return for a minimum 40-million-bahtinvestment in a local business. However, due to public concerns over foreign ownership and inequality, the country has since retracted the plan.

However, it is clear to see that Thailand’s government values foreign investment in local property. More investor-friendly schemes and initiatives can be expected in the future.

The growing interest in SEA real estate is not likely to die down anytime soon to, especially with the SEA economy’s gradual recovery from COVID-19 and expected return close to its pre-pandemic average growth rate of 5 per cent this year.

As property in SEA continues to grow more attractive, it is safe to say that many more of China’s runologists will be finding a home in the region in the near future.

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