Give me your rich

Updated: 2013-03-21 17:05

By He Feng (China Daily)

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Immigration is a familiar reality for all the Chinese. Since the 1980s, the Chinese students have been traveling overseas to pursue an education, often staying after graduation, taking the path to permanent residency and finally, naturalization. It is a long drawn-out process that sometimes takes a decade to finalize.

In recent years, a fast-track immigration process has grown in popularity among Chinese. Immigrant investor programs, established to attract investments and create jobs, are offered by a number of countries, notably popular destinations such as the United States and Canada.

The super rich in China certainly have taken advantage of expedited immigration programs. In 2011, 75 percent of applicants to the US EB-5 visa, issued to immigrant investors, came from China.

China's saturation of overseas immigration programs is hardly surprising. With its massive population and decades-long economic growth, China has produced a large share of the world's super rich. Last year the country was said to have 251 billionaires, second only to the US. The number is estimated to be much higher because Chinese people are traditionally secretive about their private wealth.

However, one clear thing about China's recent wave of immigration is that it is no longer just the super rich who seek to migrate using investments. A new segment of the nation's population is on the move. They come from the well-educated professional class between the ages of 35 to 45. They are lawyers, accountants, business executives and entrepreneurs.

In a way this is surprising, because such people are not commonly perceived as the most mobile. Many have spent 10 or more years building their professional practice and reputation. Most are married with elderly parents and young children as dependents. Uprooting to a different country means huge disruption and abandoning their social capital.

Why are they doing this? The reasons are far from new: better healthcare, better education opportunities for their children and in some cases better job opportunities. But China is catching up rapidly in these areas. In fact, for this particular group, job prospects are better in China. With their income levels, they can afford the best healthcare and education for their children. So their reason for going lie elsewhere.

One, which is not without some irony, is that it is precisely because China has done well in creating a middle class that can afford a luxury such as foreign passports. Immigrant investor programs typically require 2 million yuan to 10 million yuan ($1.6 million) from the applicant.

The US EB-5 visa, for example, requires an investment of $1 million (half that amount if in a high unemployment area). For competitively paid professionals in the top strata of the Chinese middle class, that fee is beginning to become within reach.

Still a sizeable amount, no doubt, and for many a significant chunk of their family assets. But with property prices going through the roof, many Chinese families are already sitting on assets that are worth millions, in some cases many millions. An apartment in Beijing or Shanghai can be flipped in order for a family to gain citizenship in countries like Canada or Australia. The well-informed middle class is acutely aware of this.

Other often cited reasons are their worries about air pollution and food and water safety. The PM2.5 level, a metric unheard of just a couple years ago, in many big Chinese cities is on everybody's mind and closely monitored on smartphone apps. After Beijing's particularly smoggy winter, the weather is no longer just a topic of small talk but one that leads to talk of abandoning the city.

I had the opportunity of getting to know many Chinese graduates from top US business and law schools. Just a few years ago, it was a given that many would return to China. But now, with worries over air pollution and food safety, many are reconsidering.

Should their attitude of staying put overseas continue, this represents the worst form of a brain drain. In moving overseas, professionals take with them considerable personal wealth, but more importantly, they are the cream of Chinese society in education, professional training and expertise in business, law, engineering and other fields. They are the talents that China cannot do without if it is to build a globally competitive economy.

The drain is likely to get worse. And developed countries, faced with stagnant economic growth, are working hard to attract immigrants who can bring capital and expertise. Increasingly, the emphasis is on expertise rather than capital. In April, Canada will introduce a startup visa program, allowing entrepreneurs to receive permanent residency immediately upon immigration.

The well-educated and skilled individuals are the scarce resources that every country is luring. How well China fares will increasingly depend on its ability to provide the kind of living environment everyone else demands.

The author is an independent commentator. Contact the writer at The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. 

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