Why Some Young Chinese Women Call Themselves Running Deer

Many feel Beijing’s new “three-child policy” compels them to become stay-at-home mothers and leave the workforce. In response, they are moving abroad

Why Some Young Chinese Women Call Themselves Running Deer
Travelers pass through immigration checkpoints at Fuzhou Changle International Airport. (Zhang Bin/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images)

In 2018, when Olivia Huang left her home on the outskirts of Shanghai for Doha, Qatar, the 18-year-old aspiring filmmaker looked out the tiny window of the airplane, gazing at the endless desert, thinking about how long and uncertain her future would be. But she was also relaxed in a way she had never felt before. Though Qatar had its own set of social rules and regulations, at least no one there would push Huang to be the traditionally “good woman” that her family and Chinese society expected her to be, marrying a man with a stable job and building a family — educated, but not so much that it would alienate marriageable men.

Like most Gen Z women in China, Huang, 24, is the only child of her parents; part of the last generation to be born under the three-decadeslong single-child policy in China. Shortly after it ended in 2015, the Chinese government launched a nationwide campaign encouraging women to have at least two children. In 2021, Chinese officials announced a new “three-child policy” with perks such as childcare and paid parental leave for both parents. But young women felt that it would compel them to be stay-at-home mothers and not join the workforce because they would have to take maternity leave multiple times and have to care for multiple children. To escape these pressures, many young Chinese women have recently felt the need to move overseas and build a career of their own.

While exact numbers are hard to come by, Huang is among the thousands of educated women in their 20s and 30s who have left China in the last few years seeking wider career opportunities and an independent life elsewhere. The women call themselves “pao lu,” which means “running deer,” a term that has come to symbolize Chinese women who are emigrating overseas on their own. Previously, they had used marriage as a means to obtain citizenship of other countries, but now most of them have access to higher education. The term “running deer” is also gaining traction on Chinese social media because it allows people to avoid words like “emigrant” that draw government attention and digital censorship. The government opposes emigration, which it feels makes people lose confidence in their governance and life in China.

In Doha, Huang enrolled in a university to study film and worked on the side as a cinematographer for short films sponsored by the Doha Film Institute. In between, she attended a summer program in California, and after graduating she worked as a videographer for an Emirati media company. But her dream is to become a full-time filmmaker and migrate to Canada, so she plans to get a masters degree in digital media, followed by a tech-driven job that will sponsor her work visa and, ultimately, apply for Canadian citizenship. “Canada might be a midway point, or it might be a destination for me,” Huang said, but “at least” it will take her one step farther from China.

For the past five years, Huang has been grateful that she decided to study overseas, but it has not been without consequences. As an only child, it left her with a conundrum: Who would care for her aging parents and grandparents? Traditional Chinese values dictate that even if Huang doesn’t marry, she is still obligated to tend to her entire family, including six elderly family members. Hence, when she announced her intention of moving to Canada, she did not receive an encouraging response from her family. Her father promised to provide some financial support, but that was it.

“To emigrate to another country is a selfish decision as an only child, but why can’t we be a little bit selfish?” said Huang, when I met her in Qatar last year. She lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Lusail City, a luxurious coastal metropolis constructed in 2018 to host the final of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. But Lusail was just a “halfway home,” she said. Before we sat down to talk, she proudly showed me her collection of camera lenses. Like many filmmakers, Huang spends much of her budget on camera gear. “We were taught to avoid selfishness when we were young because we ought to care for others,” she said. “But now, who comes to care about us? No one.”

I understood her well since I also identify as a “running deer.” Increasing pressure to marry from family also prompted me to move overseas for studies in 2018. Like Huang, I too come from a small town on the east coast of China and moved to Qatar for college, followed by the U.S. for grad school. As a journalist with an interest in social justice, I could not see a future for myself in China, not only because of the limitations on pursuing independent journalism in the country, but also because of my father’s experience working in state-owned media for over two decades. “I have experienced the ‘golden age’ of journalism in China,” he once said. “But now, the entire industry is heading for a cold winter.”

In many online communities for “running deer,” users share information and strategies for emigrating, tips on acquiring special skills like coding or UX design, and guidance on investment choices. Many post book and podcast recommendations on women’s empowerment, success stories of young independent women and feminist writings. There are open discussions on issues such as sexual harassment, domestic violence and gender discrimination. Such discussions may have existed before, but are far more active now thanks to these community forums.

Since 2021, however, these online communities have increasingly been under surveillance as part of “Clean Project,” a highly restrictive social media censorship operation run by the Chinese government, under which surveillance algorithms search for certain keywords to locate sensitive content, limit readership, and “clean” it up by deleting it. It also requires that users’ IP locations be shown alongside the content they post, a move that has been widely criticized for violating users’ information privacy.

In 2018, when Huang left her hometown and the idea of “running” was gaining traction on social media, the Chinese government added the word “immigration” and its derivatives to a list of blocked phrases. Irrespective, in the past three years, keyword searches for “running deer” and “emigration” have increased significantly across Chinese social media platforms. On WeChat, users searched for the keyword “emigration” 110 million times in December 2022, compared to 11 million times a year before, according to data made available by Tencent, its parent company. Of the 110 million searches, the keyword “Canada emigration” appeared around 13 million times, triple the number of times “study in Canada” was searched, they said.

But these policies have made many “running deer” feel unsafe in China. Hence, these online communities have become more private. For instance, an online group called “Pointing to the West” on Douban — a widely used Chinese social media platform similar to Reddit, which was taken down twice during Clean Project — reestablished itself as an invitation-only discussion group on an independent website. However, even within these “safe” online spaces, Huang feels reluctant to express herself freely. “We are naked in cyberspace,” she said with a wry smile.

I had joined the group in 2020 when it was still on Douban, and was struck by how strongly the women encouraged each other by sharing their struggles and lessons. Members shared tips and anecdotes about emigrating, living abroad and applying to universities, as well as updates about feminist movements in China. The admins archived some of the Reddit discussions on their new website.

Meanwhile, a grassroots movement is also taking shape, led by young Chinese women who are setting up feminist groups, organizing peer-support panel discussions, workshops and in-person gatherings to help “running deer” adjust to their new lives abroad. For instance, WomenOverseas, established in 2021 by four Chinese women based in New York City and San Francisco, has over 20,000 members now. In 2022, they launched a mentorship program through which they paired women who were studying abroad with “deer” who were aiming to “run.”

With financial support from her father, Huang hired an attorney to handle the documentation needed to move to Vancouver. Europe, Australia and North America are also popular destinations for “running deer,” but Canada is the most favored. According to Canada’s Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, the number of women migrant workers from China between 20 and 40 years old has been twice the number of Chinese men in the past decade. The number of Chinese applying for immigration for reasons other than family gatherings or marriage is also at a historic peak, the ministry said.

Even though Huang led an independent life in Doha, she felt lonely around people who had little or no understanding of her cultural roots. Sometimes, she would wake up craving a dry shrimp wonton soup or feel torn about moving away from her mother tongue. During conversations, she often found it easier to express herself in English as opposed to Mandarin. But she hoped to find a more familiar community in Vancouver, where one-fifth of residents identify as ethnically Chinese. In fact, she wanted to move to Vancouver because it has the largest Chinatown in North America. “I can easily find my favorite foods from home there,” she said.

The COVID-19 pandemic also triggered a new wave of “running deer.” Built-up anger due to the “zero-COVID policy” lockdowns was released in the form of protests across cities in China and those with large Chinese communities the world over, and restrictions on international travel and nationwide lockdowns were two frequently mentioned issues on Chinese social media during that period, according to WeChat.

Before the pandemic, Andy Xi, 40, a Beijing-born immigration consultant in Quebec City, Canada, received 800 to 1,000 requests for consultation from Beijing and surrounding areas on a daily basis, but in 2022 that figure more than doubled and messages came from all over China. Chinese women, in particular, are contacting his agency about 10 times more than before the pandemic.

“Our new customers are expressing mistrust over the condition in China,” he said. They mentioned disappointment about China’s COVID policy, social pressure to focus on family duties and gender discrimination in the job market as reasons to migrate. The growing number of postgraduate candidates in China also makes it hard to find a job, prompting people to look for opportunities abroad.

Students who study full-time in Canada for more than two years can obtain a three-year working visa after graduation. After working for a year, they become eligible for experience-based immigration, and are typically approved to be permanent residents or citizens in three to six months.

Last year, Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said the government expects 500,000 new permanent residents by 2025. As well as a faster processing time and lower application cost, the government also launched a new agency tasked with improving labor standards and protecting migrant workers. Several provinces also launched programs that give international students preferential treatment in the immigration process.

In British Columbia, for example, alongside tech and health care workers, the government opened a special provincial program for child care workers to get permanent residency. In Francophone provinces, there are programs explicitly for French-speaking immigrants, which has prompted young Chinese women like Huang to start learning French. In several online “running deer” forums, people have been posting tips to learn French.

Apart from building careers overseas, Gen Z Chinese women are also redefining the concept of family. More women are now in live-in relationships with their partners, and don’t necessarily see children in their future, challenging the traditional family system in China. “The policies never say ‘you should not work,’” said Ico Chan, a 22-year-old Doha-based data researcher, “But the reality is that you are being pushed to give up your professional career and focus on your family.”

A self-identified “running deer,” Chan did not give up on her dreams of being in a stable romantic relationship. She and her partner have agreed to have a double-income, no-kids — or what is called a “DINK” — family. “Double income, zero children — double happiness and freedom,” said Chan, who left China five years ago. She is currently looking for work in Scandinavian countries, which are famous for “nondiscriminatory job markets” and sophisticated social welfare programs.

Having children is not part of Huang’s future either. She does not trust a traditional marriage setup, in part because her parents had a troubled marriage, but also because having babies is often depicted as success in a woman’s life. “I don’t see the ‘must’ here,” she said. “My boyfriend and I have already been living happily and peacefully under the same roof. Why do we need a piece of paper to legitimize our relationship?” However, there are also some Chinese women who are emigrating because surrogacy is neither legal nor acceptable in China.

In the last few months, Huang quit her job in Qatar, took a short vacation in Thailand, worked as a part-time photographer, and visited her family and friends in China after four years. This fall, she landed in Vancouver and enrolled in a two-year certificate program in digital media and animation. She showed me her recent sketch paintings and sent photos of her hometown specialties that she found next to her new apartment. “Come visit me in Vancouver,” she said repeatedly. “Inshallah I will,” I responded with her favorite Arabic word.

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