One of the key issues at China's recently-concluded political sessions was the urgent need to combat pollution. According to a new report by the Center for China and Globalization, China is now the biggest source of emigrants to the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. More than two thirds surveyed say pollution is their top reason for leaving.
With more white-collar Chinese looking to live elsewhere, experts are now warning of a "brain drain" in the world's second-largest economy.
25-year-old Steven Guo studied banking in Chicago, and says he hopes to go back - for clean air.
"If I have the chance to emigrate to another country, America is my first choice. The first reason is the good environment, (then) good education and good policy," Guo said. "Before, I thought the environment was good here, because I hadn't been to America."According to the Center for China and Globalization, or CCG, nearly 70 percent of emigrating Chinese surveyed say pollution is their main reason for leaving.
Emigration agencies are cashing in.
"There were many reasons why people sought to emigrate before. But this year, we've seen 50 percent more applications - even during the New Year holiday. During the first two months, air pollution was especially bad. So you could say smog is a catalyst," said Edward Chen at Guardian Immigration.
For decades, China's elite have bought educations and homes abroad. But as the country's middle class grows, a wider group are moving.
"Before, most of our clients were only the very wealthy. Now, they're white-collar workers, people with a house, a family but who are willing to sell their home for a new life elsewhere," Chen said.
Chinese people are becoming increasingly well-educated, both in China and abroad, giving them more options overseas than previous generations had. And with toxic smog still a lingering concern, many experts warn that China's brightest minds could increasingly be going elsewhere.
The Center for China and Globalization says a "brain drain" now poses a real risk to China's economy.
"China produces the most engineers, the most PhD students in the world - I'm sure other countries are looking to China for talent, plus all the immigrating countries have designed all kinds of investor-immigrant programs to attract Chinese," said Wang Huiyao, director general of the center.
"If China wants to be an innovative country, if China wants to change from 'made in China' to 'created in China', absolutely, we need a lot of talent to help. Currently we have a lot of talent leaving the country. About ten million Chinese left China since it opened up. But according to the latest census, there're only about 800,000 foreigners in China - that's a ratio of about 12 or 15 times."Tackling pollution was a top priority at China's recently concluded political sessions.
"They are taking actions and making budgets, so hopefully in five to ten years we can get this issue under control and return to a normal flow of immigrants," Wang said.
Until China's skies clear, its new wave of emigration seems unlikely to stop.