Wealthy Chinese flock to the West
- 28 July 2010
- From the section Business
Growing numbers of rich Chinese are applying for permanent residency in Western countries under programmes that allow investors with a high net worth to "buy" citizenship.
The number of Chinese investors granted permanent residency in Canada has doubled in two years.
Ottawa has now halted all applications to its federal immigrant investor programme while it consults on plans to double the funds needed to obtain a visa.
Applicants are still allowed to apply to a scheme run by the province of Quebec, however,
And at seminars run by visa consultancy firms in China, advisers are encouraging people to apply for the scheme before Quebec also doubles its minimum requirements to match the federal government's proposals.
Cash and experience
On a rainy Saturday afternoon, in a conference room at a five-star Shanghai hotel, more than 30 potential "investor applicants" arrive to hear how they might be able to exchange their cash for a foreign passport.
Many are in their 30s. There are several young couples. Most are professionals. Few are dressed smartly. They appear to be a pretty average cross-section of Shanghai's moneyed middle class.
They are shown a video that the visa company has made to promote Canada, and the country's visa application service.
"You don't have to worry about integrating," the video's commentary declares. "You don't even need to speak English."
Then the advisers go through the detail.
The Quebec scheme requires applicants to show they have a net worth of C$800,000 (US$776,000; £502,000) and they must invest up to C$400,000.
They also need to show they have had two years' experience in management.
That's considerably cheaper, they point out, than the UK, which requires investors to invest £1m ($1.5m) for five years.
There are pros and cons of each of the countries' schemes.
Canada's applications currently take about two-and-a-half years, but the financial requirements are the lowest in the world.
The United States requires applicants to invest up to $1m (£646,000) in a business that creates at least 10 new jobs. Applications take up to one-and-a-half years.
The UK's application process is the quickest. It can be completed in just three months, according to the visa consultants at the seminar, and there is no interview.
But it is also the most costly.
"Usually, the applicants are business owners or senior managers," explains Vincent Chen, senior consultant for the Visa Consulting Group.
"The average age is 40 to 45, but it's getting younger."
Canada has not changed its "immigrant investor" programme requirements since 1991.
"Back then, C$800,000 was a huge amount," Mr Chen says.
"But now, with the increases in property prices in cities like Shanghai, people don't think it's that hard to achieve.
"That's why you've seen the numbers granted permanent residency have doubled."
Other factors are also at work here.
Increasingly, those who come to the seminars have friends who have already emigrated.
Reasons to move
David Lu, 38, a manager in a telecommunications company, has come to the seminar to find out more about how to apply to move to Canada.
At the end of the session he starts filling in the forms eagerly.
He has positive reasons to move. Some of his relatives already live in Canada. And during holidays there he has enjoyed the lower pollution levels there.
Also, he says, the Canadians are "a lot more relaxed" than the Chinese.
There are other reasons though why he wants to leave China.
"People hate you [here] if you have money, and the rich bully the poor," he says.
"Another issue for me is health care," he adds.
"I don't think anyone interested in moving abroad would worry about the costs. We want their better quality medical care."
Fabio Xu, 30, runs a paint company in Shanghai.
He says he wants to move to the US "because of the better medical care there, and better educational opportunities for my child".
"In China, all my money goes on my mortgage, food, clothing and travel," he says, "but in the States there's generally more freedom. I would be able to develop myself more creatively and get more out of life."
Some Chinese academics worry that China is losing its brightest and most able citizens, as well as huge amounts of money.
Last year 1,823 investors were granted citizenship in Canada under the immigrant investor programme.
Even if they had only invested the minimum amount required, that would mean almost US$700m had been taken out of the country.
"China is losing the talent it really needs," says Dr Wang Huiyao, the director general of the Centre for China and Globalisation.
"As China tries to develop its economy and change it from 'made in China' to 'created in China', it needs these people to build the country."
In touch with China
Dr Wang believes many people want a foreign passport because it is so hard to travel freely around the world on Chinese documents.
Indeed, one woman at the seminar is anxious to know how quickly she could get her Canadian passport, so she could return home to China.
For her it appears the motivation is not to get a new home abroad, but to obtain a passport that might make life more convenient.
A Western diplomat in Shanghai offers another explanation for the increase in these kinds of visa applications.
The internet, he says, means you can live abroad, but never leave China.
"You can wake up in the morning and browse the People's Daily online over breakfast. You can trade your stocks on the Shanghai exchange with the click of a mouse," he says.
"You can chat all day to relatives for free on Skype, or run your business remotely."
His point is that emigration is no longer necessarily the emotional wrench that it once was for people.
The need to assimilate in their adopted country for practical reasons is not as great as it once was - which in itself could yet pose its own challenges for Western societies.