News / Asia

China's Wealthy Set Their Sights Abroad

A wealthy Chinese immigrant family inspect a villa in the high-class neighborhood of West Vancouver, Canada, June 11, 2011.
A wealthy Chinese immigrant family inspect a villa in the high-class neighborhood of West Vancouver, Canada, June 11, 2011.

As China's wealth increases, so does the number of well-off Chinese seeking to emigrate to other countries.

Their reasons vary: some say they want to switch citizenship to improve educational opportunities for their children, others say they are trying to  “hedge their bets” against an uncertain economic future.

The U.S. state of Florida, with its sunshine and beaches, is on the other side of the planet from the southern Chinese commercial center, Guangzhou.

The distance does not deter one ambitious Guangzhou resident who is in the process of obtaining an investor immigrant visa to the United States.

She says she is willing to leave because she thinks her two children will have better opportunities for education. She says holding a U.S. passport also will make it easier to obtain visas to go to other countries.

Many wealthy Chinese do not publicly talk about their desire to immigrate since such a move can be seen as disloyal to their country. This would-be emigre agreed to speak to VOA only on the condition that she not be identified.

To qualify for her visa, she and her husband are planning to invest in a wind farm in South Dakota. She says they made their decision after a trip to the United States in 2009.

She says her friends in the United States introduced her to lawyers, and then after she returned to China, she said she was bombarded with “all sorts of advertisements” about immigrating to other countries.

She says they were considering moving to two U.S. cities, Chicago or Tampa, because that is where their friends live. They decided Chicago is too cold, she says, and because they come from a warm climate, they chose Tampa.

For more than 20 years, the United States has had an immigration program under which a foreigner can qualify for U.S. citizenship if he or she invests one million dollars in a venture that creates at least ten jobs for Americans.

Charles Bennett, the head of consular affairs at the U.S. embassy in Beijing, says in China, most of the interest in the program so far has come from American companies that are trying to find Chinese investors. But, he notes that it is only recently that many Chinese could even meet the steep financial requirements for the program.

“The interest has grown over the life of the program of course because 20 years ago, there weren't the same number of people that there are now who would be able to qualify for this type of visa. So, there has been more interest recently," Bennett says.

China’s economy has recorded some of the world's highest annual growth rates for more than a decade, and the trend is expected to continue this year.

The apparent paradox of those growing riches is that there is also an increasing number of the newly-wealthy who are seeking to emigrate.

Charles Qi is the president of Beijing East J&P Star Consulting, a company that helps Chinese people obtain visas to other countries. When he started 16 years ago, he mostly helped people apply for skilled worker status. Now he helps customers who have the means apply for investor citizenship abroad, especially to Canada, Europe, Hong Kong, Singapore and the United States.

Qi says before 2000, he only had about 20 to 30 business applications each year. Now, more than ten years later, he says the applications have increased ten-fold, to a few hundred business investor applications each year.

Qi says he thinks that, although his clients may leave behind their Chinese citizenship when they emigrate, many of them are still Chinese in their actions and in their hearts.

Most of his clients still have their equipment and business in China, and he thinks this type of immigration will help make China more open in the future and will have a positive impact on China's economic development.

The American economy has not been growing as strongly as in China, in recent years, but William Zarit, a commercial officer at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, says he believes many Chinese still see the United States as a safer investment.

“We don't know what's going to happen here in the next three to five years economically, how hard that landing is going to be," says Zarit. "So, I think investors here in China are thinking of that also, you know, let's diversify and get a steady [return]. We might not be getting the return on investment that I possibly would get here [in China] in whatever the industry, maybe, but I think I will go to America anyhow, to hedge my bet.”

Although Chinese who are thinking of emigrating abroad do not generally talk publicly about their decision making, there is a heated debate on the topic in Internet chat rooms.

In those online discussions, commentators suggest that the decision to leave China is not solely an economic one.

One real estate mogul recently posted an online comment bemoaning China's overall lack of a sense of basic security for things like property, food, air, education and basic rights. He says this is not only the main reason motivating people to leave the country, it is also the main thing threatening China's overall stability.

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