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By DIDI KIRSTEN TATLOW
Published: August 5, 2010
As part of his job, Mr. Charette, a lawyer from Montreal, scrutinizes clients’ financial records. Back in 2005, when he began working at Harvey Law Group in Beijing, he was struck by how often a family’s wealth began with the transfer of the assets of state-owned enterprises to private ownership in the 1990s. Over the course of about eight years, he estimates, those factories became fully profitable.
“Now, I look back over a decade of records, and I see that the factory is running itself. The money of the family is in the second generation, and the children are often already overseas-educated, and they, too, own real estate here,” he said.
But regardless of how wealthy they become, China’s new rich simply don’t feel secure.
“I’ve had rich businessmen say to me, ‘You can be a tiger, but there is always a hunter somewhere,”’ he said.
So they come to Mr. Charette, who specializes in investment immigration to his home province of Quebec. Or they go to other lawyers dealing in immigration to major destinations like the United States, Australia, Singapore, New Zealand and Hong Kong.
Unsolicited text messages from immigration firms have become a standard feature of life for Beijing’s upper-middle classes.
“Zero-risk emigration to America: Invest in an Idaho gold mine. For the first time in Beijing the governor himself will explain how, officially,” ran one, supplying a time and date for the meeting. “Emigrate to Australia for $200,000, 95 percent success rate, free education, generous welfare,” ran another.
In just over three decades, China has gone from being one of the poorest countries in the world to its third-biggest economy. Per capita gross domestic product in 1975 was $410. In 2009, it was $6,567, according to the World Bank.
The Hurun Rich List, based in Shanghai, says there are now 875,000 known dollar millionaires in China, an increase of 6.1 percent from a year ago.
Yet even as China grows richer, the number of its rich choosing to emigrate is rising. Many want to maintain two homes, merging their money-making abilities in China with what they perceive as the greater security and ease of international travel offered by a foreign passport or permanent residency.
Last year, for the first time, Chinese citizens became the largest group of immigrants to Australia, displacing the traditional sources of Britain and New Zealand. From July to December 2009, 13,371 Chinese became “permanent additions” (gaining or entitled to permanent residency) to Australia, overtaking Britain’s 13,037 and New Zealand’s 7,342.
While most immigrants are admitted on the basis of sought-after skills or to reunite families, investment immigration, in which applicants make a minimum financial investment or create jobs in their destination, is also booming. So much so that Canada, excluding Quebec, temporarily halted its program in June in order to double the amount that would-be immigrants must invest to qualify. Whereas before applicants required a net worth of 800,000 Canadian dollars, or about $790,000, and a 400,000-dollar investment, in the future they will need 1.6 million dollars and an investment of 800,000 dollars.
“All these changes are because we are overloaded,” Mr. Charette said. “This is a huge, sophisticated market.”
The result for Mr. Charette has been gratifying — a surge in applications to Quebec. He estimates that the window of opportunity will last until October, when Quebec, too, will adjust its policies. In February, 233 people from around Asia applied to the program, he said. In June, the month the national program closed, the number was 519. Chinese constitute up to 85 percent of applicants.
On June 26, the same day the rest of Canada temporarily closed doors, Mr. Charette addressed about 40 would-be investment immigrants in Beijing. The middle-aged men and women listened intently, most taking notes.
The looming higher rates “shouldn’t be a problem for my friends,” murmured Ms. Hou, who did not want to be identified by her full name and said she was with the People’s Liberation Army, representing rich property developers from the city of Xinxiang, in the central province of Henan.
Would she also emigrate, if she could? “Yes,” she said immediately.
Why? After all, China’s living standard is rising as the rest of the world watches the apparent success of the so-called “Beijing Model” — authoritarian politics plus fast economic growth.
Her answers mirrored those given by other would-be emigrants: Better education for the children; a pollution-free environment; better medical care; a safer food supply; bigger and cheaper housing. Added up, they are what psychologists and sociologists dub Q.O.L., or quality of life issues, factors not measured by G.D.P.
“Education is very important,” offered another woman at the seminar. “It’s different over there, and it produces different values.”
Did the current economic crisis in the West put her off?
“Not really,” she said. “They talk about it in the papers here, but I don’t know if they’re telling the truth. I trust my friends, and my friends say things aren’t that bad.”
Joy Xi emigrated to Canada nearly a decade ago. When I asked why people leave, despite rising prosperity in China, her answer was swift: “Sanlu,” the company notorious for producing melamine-laced milk powder that killed six babies and sickened hundreds of thousands more in 2008. Few believe the problem is over.
Also, said Ms. Xi, China is growing richer, but it’s also growing more unequal, and that makes the rich feel unsafe.
Summing up how many Chinese think, she cited a widespread saying: “Life in China is too risky. Consider carefully where you want to be reborn in your next life.”