China’s rich, yearning to breath free

Thousands of Chinese are fleeing to the United States. We are not talking about impoverished peasants hiding in cargo containers. We’re talking about millionaires flying first class and buying condos in the choicest ZIP codes. A big reason for this relocation, real estate agents say, is a desire for America’s clean air, as opposed to China’s suffocating smog.

Welcome to the new world of environmental immigration. These are not the “huddled masses” immortalized on the Statue of Liberty’s poem, but they are — quite literally — “yearning to breathe free.”

One can see the point of leaving China if you have the resources. Rust-colored toxic wastes choke its rivers. Sooty air makes eyes itch. And public health crises in some industrial towns have reached the level that they’re being called “cancer villages.” Who wants to expose the family to that if you can live under Boston’s blue skies and in close proximity to the select U.S. universities you want your kids to attend anyway.

About a quarter of recent buyers for Boston’s top luxury condos have been foreign investors, especially from China and other parts of Asia. A local entrepreneur, Patty Chen, runs a soup-to-nuts relocation service, American Asia Business Tour Group-Boston, helping out with immigration visas, real estate services, and advice on schools and neighborhoods.

Manhattan has experienced a similar rush of Chinese buyers. Michael Chen at the brokerage firm Bond New York cites their preference for New York’s fresh air and “better family and work/life balance.” Guess it’s all relative.

How bad is the pollution back in China? A recent study published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences found that Chinese living in their country’s heavily industrial north die on average five years earlier than those living in the south. Reliance on coal-fired heating and factories is largely to blame.

China has been the world’s third-most popular tourist destination, after France and the United States. But the number of visitors there fell 5 percent this year. The China National Tourism Administration cites the smog as a big factor keeping people away. Beijing saw a steeper, 15 percent, drop in foreign travelers. More and more businesspeople are reportedly trying to get moved out of Beijing for health reasons.

For decades, corrupt Communist Party leaders have squandered their natural heritage in their push to create jobs — and stay in power. The policy has also enriched their families and cronies feasting off the big, dirty industrial machine. But now environmental squalor is beginning to be bad for business — as well as stirring social unrest, which is about time.

The government has started sponsoring studies on ways to lessen pollution, both the noxious type you breathe and the invisible planet-warming gases from the same sources. Proposals include a carbon tax on fossil fuels and a national carbon credit market. Sound familiar?

Environmental segregation is not unknown in the United States. Affluent precincts in this country maintain pristine surroundings, while poorer ones often get the smokestacks, waste facilities and lax regulations.

But Americans never let things reach the point that their rich citizens immigrated in massive numbers to cleaner countries. And to their credit, Americans have accepted the loss of some competitive advantage in global manufacturing as a necessary price to pay for protecting our natural surroundings.

The alarm is sounding for China’s elite to also address the trade-off between explosive economic growth and environmental degradation. Jobs versus early death should be a topic for national debate.

You wonder whether China’s environment would have been allowed to get so putrid if rich Chinese had to gasp the same air as the toilers. One can’t blame them for wanting to escape, but still you wonder.

Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. Her email address is fharrop@projo.com

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