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‘Airpocalypse’ Drives Expats Out of Beijing

Jamil Anderlini
Monday, 1 Apr 2013 | 9:20 PM ET
Getty Images

Air pollution is driving expatriates out of Beijing and making it harder for companies to recruit international talent, according to anecdotal accounts from diplomats, senior executives and businesses.

No official figures are available on how many people are planning to leave after three months of the worst air pollution on record in the Chinese capital. But companies that mainly serve foreign residents are bracing for an exodus around the middle of the year when the school term ends.

"We're anticipating this summer will be a very big season [of moves out of Beijing] for us," said Chad Forrest, North China general manager for Santa Fe Relocations, a global service. "It seems a lot of people, particularly families with small children who have been here a few years, are reconsidering the cost-benefit equation and deciding to leave for health reasons."

Doctors at private hospitals that mostly treat expat patients tell a similar story.

"We don't have good statistics yet but we are seeing many more patients telling us they are leaving because of air pollution," said Dr. Andy Wong, head of family medicine at Beijing United Family hospital, the biggest private healthcare provider for foreign residents in China. "Recruitment is getting harder for all companies – how do you convince people to come work in the most polluted city in the world?"

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Pollution has long been a concern for residents in Beijing but air quality readings published by the city government and the U.S. embassy indicated levels of toxic smog on some days in January that were nearly 40 times higher than considered healthy by the World Health Organization.

Although pollution levels have not yet returned to those seen during January's "airpocalypse", daily readings often hit levels considered hazardous. Residents are advised to avoid going outdoors at all and to limit their activity even while inside.

The air pollution index in Beijing published by the US embassy gave a reading on Sunday afternoon between "very unhealthy" and "hazardous".

Most environmental experts and Beijing residents assume that the problem will only worsen as the government continues to encourage enormous expansion in industry, coal-fired power generation and car sales across the country.

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"Air pollution is becoming a bigger concern for our members and their families," Adam Dunnett, secretary-general of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, said. "While members leave for all sorts of reasons, we inevitably hear nearly every time that one of the contributing reasons is the air pollution."

Lars Rasmussen, a Nokia marketing executive, and his wife Michelle Frazier, a kindergarten teacher, have decided to return with their two children to their native Denmark after three years in Beijing. The couple say one of the most important deciding factors was the air pollution.

(Read More: China's Smog Becoming a Serious International Issue)

"Our kids can't play outside or they have to wear face masks when they go out. It's like something out of a science fiction novel," Ms. Frazier said.

Of the roughly 600,000 registered foreign residents in all of China, about 200,000 live in Beijing, which has a total population of approximately 20 million.

But the expat community is overwhelmingly concentrated in high-earning professional jobs and contributes enormously to the city's economy and the development of advanced industries.

Christian Murck, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, told reporters on Friday that the unprecedented levels of pollution in January had been a "tipping point" for some families. He knew of "many people" who are planning to leave as a result.

(Read More: Chinese Millionaire Fights Pollution With Thin Air)

Executives at major companies and diplomats say recruiting new people to move to Beijing is one of the biggest concerns for businesses with China operations and many prospective candidates are declining positions because of air pollution, especially if they have young children.

Michael Namatinia, the regional president of an Israeli software company, said filling a senior management role in Beijing has been extremely difficult.

"We tried to recruit someone to run our North Asia operations from Beijing but after finding a suitable candidate and negotiating for a month the person's wife vetoed the move because of air pollution," Mr. Namatinia said.