Home Editors' Pick Locked out: the highs and lows of life outside China during Covid

Locked out: the highs and lows of life outside China during Covid

by Tom Pattinson
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LEWIS MCCARTHY

These three Brits were all locked out of China as the country closed its borders to all foreigners, including residents, in response to Covid-19. Tom Pattinson hears how it has affected their lives, their families and their businesses – and whether or not they will ever return

 

Rupert Hoogewerf

Shanghai-based Rupert is the founder of Hurun and managed to return to Shanghai in July

rupert hoogwerf hurun report

I first lived in China in 1990 as a student, and then returned for a two-year spell with Arthur Anderson in 1997. A year later, Shanghai was home and it’s where I have remained ever since.

The Hurun UK China Awards were being held at London’s Rosewood Hotel on the 16th of January so I had come back for that with just enough clothes for the event and a few days in wintery Britain – a backpack with a couple of warm jumpers and of course my dinner jacket for the event. This was supposed to be the start of a series of awards and events we were doing in Australia, New York, Toronto, Los Angeles and Singapore, but the events were quickly cancelled because of the epidemic and the fact that people would not have been in the mood for celebratory dinners.

We have three children in school in Shanghai but with the schools closed and flights cancelled we decided to stay in England for a couple of months as there wasn’t any point trying to go back during the epidemic. Luckily we have a cottage in Oxfordshire where we come for holidays that we could lock down in. The pace of life slowed and we didn’t see anyone for three months.

We managed to get hold of six chickens, who laid eggs for us, as we were worried that food supplies would become a challenge. The children even help bottle-feed several baby cows that a neighbour had during lockdown. My wife’s sister is the head of an intensive care unit at a London hospital so we also took her two children and her two dogs in for two months, so it really was a lovely time.

The flights we had booked were initially scheduled for the end of March, but by then a quarantine was being imposed in China and Britain was starting to suffer from its own outbreak. It felt wrong to be bailing on the UK at the time so we stayed, knowing our window of opportunity to leave was closing and that it would now probably be June before we could get back to our home in China.

On the 16th June the Chinese embassy re-opened and we requested to get back in. A week later I received an invitation letter allowing me to return. I now just needed to find a flight. Flights to Shanghai were incredibly expensive at the time and for a family of five to travel wasn’t going to be cheap, but we decided to stay together as we had seen some families split apart for months. Luckily a friend of mine had block-booked an Air Sri Lanka flight in early July so we managed to get on that.

For a family of five to travel wasn’t going to be cheap, but we decided to stay together as we had seen some families split apart for months

For me it was my longest tour in the UK for 20 years and at the end of it, my wife and I were considering whether we should stay. We were quite seriously considering whether to put the kids in school in Oxfordshire but our life and our friends are in Shanghai and we were also taken aback by the enthusiasm of our kids for the life they lead in Shanghai.

The Hurun report gets 40% of its revenues from events, so of course there was a big drop in the first half of the year. We were expecting revenues to rise by 40-50% this year but instead they shrunk. I have 150 staff around the world, 100 of which are in China. By early April we had reduced the working week to three days on a reduced salary with the option to make up the difference in overtime later in the year. Luckily we have recently expanded further afield, which meant that when China was locked down we could move some of the research work to India and when India started to struggle, China could pick up the slack.

We had already identified a number of trends for our business – the fact that we needed to reduce reliance on events and expand our online presence, as well as to further expand our global footprint outside of China. So the lockdown simply accelerated these plans.

The lack of events has also enabled us to come up with new ideas and products, such as China 500 – a list of the country’s most valuable companies. We’re not out of the woods yet but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

We’re not out of the woods yet but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Having been away for six months a lot has changed upon our return. I’ve seen that WeChat has removed its limit of 5,000 contacts; that now you can scan your passport – instead of queuing – to get a train ticket; and that we can now get fined for things like jaywalking based entirely on facial recognition software. It seems that the virus has enabled a few other things to fast-forward their timelines too…

 

Lewis McCarthy

Lewis is a Beijing-based brand partnership consultant who is still in the UK

LEWIS MCCARTHY

The seven months and counting spent back home in the UK have felt like an eternity, yet passed in the blink of an eye. Like many others, I returned to the UK in February attempting to escape the pandemic – a decision that undoubtedly backfired with hindsight. For me, the lockdown experience has had three stages.

First, the return to the UK and lockdown itself. Lockdown was overwhelmingly a positive experience. It was a chance to see my parents and spend significant time with them. They had completed the sale of their house the week prior and downsized into a Cotswold village for retirement. Having a garden and being stuck in the countryside during an unusually warm spring was not lost on me and it was hard to think that returning to the UK was anything but the right decision as images of Wuhan and other parts of China beamed across the world.

A lot of my team and client work was UK-centric and suddenly the working hours that I had been putting in in Beijing had become a lot more favourable (earlier mornings now compensated for late nights). Now that everyone was effectively working from their own satellite office, the challenges associated with doing business from Beijing – the video calls, Google docs, shared drives, technology issues, communication barriers – were suddenly being felt by everyone, and came to be considered business priorities that required immediate global solutions.

For the first time the attraction of China is that it offers normality, rather than a break from it

I was able to integrate more into my immediate sales team, which benefited my work and ability to contribute and co-work with different members. Access to information was easier due to the nature of everyone having similar circumstances.

The second stage was the reopening of the UK economy. Whilst China had started its ‘back to normal’ process, it felt the UK’s was rushed. Infection rates and daily death tolls remained high and on course to be the worst affected in Europe.

It became an isolating experience – I was hesitant to venture out or meet people and take what seemed like unnecessary risks at the time. All in the hope that China might change its border policy and I should be ‘ready to go’ at a moment’s notice. It was going to take a while.

Overseas flights were still arriving in the UK and daily government broadcasts were sending mixed messages about what to do, not to mention that politicians were flouting the rules themselves. The imminent return that I had hoped for no longer seemed a reality, and without a clear process for returning, frustration began to seep in and overwhelm me.

WeChat groups full of stranded expats certainly helped alleviate the opaqueness of the visa process – but confusion still reigned. Everyone was going through a similar, shared experience, but each also seemed to have their own unique set of tricky circumstances. My own was capped off by a downsizing of the company I worked for.

Everyone was going through a similar, shared experience, but each also seemed to have their own unique set of tricky circumstances

The third stage has been China’s steps toward reopening. Now that China is beginning to accept visa applications en masse for EU and UK citizens to return – things are beginning to look more positive. Now I face a dilemma about whether returning to China is the right choice, or whether I should pursue opportunities elsewhere. I’m keeping open minded as each have pros and cons, but for the first time the attraction of China is that it offers normality, rather than a break from it. More than that, it feels difficult to close a chapter that never quite finished.

 

Archie Hamilton

The founder of Split Works, Archie is currently living in Australia and has yet to return to his former home of Shanghai

Archie from Splitworks China 

Felix, my son, had a fever on the 18th January and so we took him to hospital. It got quite serious but at that point we weren’t aware of the coronavirus. They said it was an influenza and it was only as he was recovering we started hearing about the virus in Wuhan via various WeChat groups.

At Chinese New Year we were going to go out with friends but we decided to stay home because Felix was still sick. The next day, all hell broke loose. People were saying the virus was coming and to stay inside. Luckily, because of Chinese New Year we had already stocked up on food so we just hung out, played board games and had a nice time. Shortly after this, schools said they weren’t going to return until March and we realised how serious it was.

My wife had booked tickets for the family to fly to her home country of Australia on January 29th and with schools being closed and the city on lockdown, we didn’t want to be locked for 6 weeks in our apartment, so we decided to take the holiday in Australia instead.

We planned to do home schooling for the few weeks that we were away. It was great fun at the beginning and reassuring to be out of China where everything seemed to be looking bleak. We travelled around seeing friends and family but it gradually became clear this was not going to just be a few weeks.

Back in China everything was on hold. We had managed to get free rent on both our offices and apartment for the first two months but then landlords starting demanding their money.

We shut down both our Beijing and Shanghai offices and had to ask friends in Shanghai to clear out the apartment we had lived in for the last 10 years. We had been in Shanghai for 15 years and now it was our friends deciding what to ship, sell or throw.

We had been in Shanghai for 15 years and now it was our friends deciding what to ship, sell or throw.

We reduced our overheads at the company as much as we could and had to cancel a big series of live shows we had scheduled for the first half of the year. For context, I had lost $2.5m on the Concrete and Grass Festival back in 2018 due to a massive over investment in the live music festival sector in the last couple of years. Our costs had gone up a lot – for example our security costs in 2015 were 50,000 RMB and by 2018 had risen to 750,000 RMB. Talent, venues, you name it – costs across the board were rising and we nearly went under. So over the last two years we had reformatted the company and on January 14th – days before lockdown – announced the first 10 of 50 live shows we had booked with a further 90 planned for later in the year. A week after announcing the shows, we had to cancel all of them.

We’re working on getting some of these shows for later in the year but I have had the time, space and distance to think more about the company. I have a more nuanced approached to what our business is and am close to raising money for a new stage.

We’re going to stay in Australia for the foreseeable future as it has allowed us to see a different way of life here. It’s good for my daughter to be in a different education system where she is taught to challenge and question.

And China has changed too. It’s become a lot more local and the infrastructure that allowed non-Chinese speaking expats to work there has diminished. My business would run better if I wasn’t so involved with the decision making. I am finding a Chinese management team who can run it and I’m looking at how I can add value without coming back full time.

China has changed too. It’s become a lot more local and the infrastructure that allowed non-Chinese speaking expats to work there has diminished

The idea is that my family will stay here and I will go back occasionally. In a number of ways the virus has been a net positive. Yes, I was sad to lose the shows we had booked, but it has forced me to do some soul searching and figure out what my best course of action is. I have some options around Europe and Asia but I want to keep the business alive and growing. We have half a million people following our social media; we have a successful online music publication; we have festival brands; we can sell out 30 cities in China; we are the only touring agency in Asia… but I need to demonstrate there is a transition to local staff and local management.

Leaving China makes you realise what a massive family China was. Coming to Brisbane and not knowing anyone here, you notice that people have their own lives and it’s hard to meet new people. However now I would rather have a situation where I can go in to China as and when I need rather than having my entire life there.

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