By JEREMY PAGE
BEIJING—This time last year, Shi Kang considered himself a happy man.
Writing 15 novels had made him a millionaire. He owned a luxury apartment and a new silver Mercedes. He was so content with his carefree life in Beijing that he never even traveled overseas.
Shi Kang, a millionaire writer living in Beijing, started thinking about emigrating after a long road trip last year around the U.S.
Today, a year later, Mr. Shi is considering emigrating to the U.S.—one of a growing number of rich Chinese either contemplating leaving their homeland or already arranging to do it.
“Things are real there,” says Mr. Shi, who has been trying to learn English by listening to language CDs in his car. “Here you don’t know what to believe.” He adds: “I like China a lot. But if I have kids, I wouldn’t necessarily want them to live in China.”
With a fortune of at least $1.6 million, Mr. Shi is part of the wealthy elite that benefited most from the Communist Party’s brand of capitalism. He is riding the crest of arguably the biggest economic expansion in history.
And yet, while the party touts the economic success of the “Chinese model,” many of its poster children are heading for the exits. They are in search of things money can’t buy in China: Cleaner air, safer food, better education for their children. Some also express concern about government corruption and the safety of their assets.
The movement represents the fraying of an unwritten social contract between the Communist Party and China’s citizens that has held the nation together through wrenching changes since Deng Xiaoping launched market reforms in 1978: The rulers deliver economic growth; the ruled make few political demands. The underlying message seems to be that after three decades of rising prosperity, wealthier Chinese are either looking beyond their economic gains, or taking them for granted, and now crave improvements in their quality of life.
It is happening just as the ruling Communist Party prepares for its once-a-decade leadership change in October or November, when a generation of leaders led by current President and party chief Hu Jintao is expected to start retiring.
The elite exodus is a potentially troubling development for party leaders, many of whose relatives have long since chosen to live or study overseas. Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to succeed Mr. Hu and who visited the U.S. last week, has a daughter at Harvard, an ex-wife in Britain and a sister in Canada.
So what changed Mr. Shi’s mind? A year ago, for the first time, he traveled outside China. Initially he just planned to visit a girlfriend studying in New Jersey, but he ended up buying a BMW X3 sport-utility vehicle and doing a 40,000-mile road trip around the U.S.
His first impressions weren’t good: He lost a bag at a New York City airport and thought New York was a “trash city” at first. But when he headed into the countryside, with Beethoven blaring on the stereo, he had something of an epiphany.
“As soon as you leave the city, the U.S. is really a big garden,” said Mr. Shi. “It’s like a symphony: When Chinese people listen to these idyllic pastoral tunes, they can’t picture it, because China just doesn’t have these things.”
Mr. Shi, 43 years old, is famous in China for novels like “Loafing Around,” documenting the dissolute lives of young Beijingers in the 1980s. His 2007 book “Strive” was turned into a hugely popular television series.
As he toured the U.S., he wrote about it on his micro-blog (a Chinese version of Twitter) which now has more than 800,000 followers. He dwelt in detail on the relative affordability of a large house with a garden.
Some readers accused him of being anti-Chinese. But his sentiments are common among China’s wealthy, now estimated to include about one million millionaires (in dollar terms), and 150 to 300 billionaires, according to various studies.