Pessimistic About Future, Chinese Look Abroad

Ian Johnson of The New York Times reports that political uncertainty and fear for their financial future, among other factors, is driving more and more Chinese professionals to emigrate abroad in search of a better life:

As China’s Communist Party prepares a momentous leadership change in early November, it is losing skilled professionals like Ms. Chen in record numbers. In 2010, the last year for which complete statistics are available, 508,000 Chinese left for the 34 developed countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That is a 45 percent increase over 2000.

Individual countries report the trend continuing. In 2011, the United States received 87,000 permanent residents from China, up from 70,000 the year before. Chinese immigrants are driving real estate booms in places as varied as Midtown Manhattan, where some enterprising agents are learning Mandarin, to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, which offers a route to a European Union passport.

Few emigrants from China cite politics, but it underlies many of their concerns. They talk about a development-at-all-costs strategy that has ruined the environment, as well as a deteriorating social and moral fabric that makes China feel like a chillier place than when they were growing up. Over all, there is a sense that despite all the gains in recent decades, China’s political and social trajectory is still highly uncertain.

Even Chinese who have achieved their own wealth at home find are drawn by the clean air, good schools and other social services in places like the United States, Australia and Canada. Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that foreign property developers have flocked to China to catch the eyes of prospective buyers and sell them on the lure of foreign residency. And The Los Angeles Times’ Barbara Demick writes that those with enough cash can enlist the services of relocation consultants to advise them on an emigration strategy:

A recent poll of Chinese with a net worth of more than 10 million yuan ($1.6 million) found that 16% had obtained foreign residency and that an additional 44% were planning to emigrate. Many cite a polluted atmosphere, and not just in the air they breathe: endemic corruption, a shaky political system, tainted products and poor medical care, among other problems.

The exodus of the middle and upper classes is an embarrassment to the government, with possibly serious economic implications because the emigres are taking with them money and skills. In an attempt to prevent capital flight, Chinese laws limit people from taking more than $50,000 a year out of the country, but it is easy enough to get around the restrictions.

In effect, the wealthy emigres are buying their new residencies, in what they hope is the first step toward new passports. Many of the foreign programs involve a substantial investment by the prospective expatriates, either in real estate or businesses. The recently renewed U.S. EB-5 visa, for instance, requires $1 million ($500,000 for poor or rural areas) in businesses that create at least 10 jobs.

Dozens of consulting firms with names such as Royal Way Ahead Exit and Entry Service Co. have sprung up in recent years, their websites beckoning with photographs of swimming pools and world landmarks, with the Statue of Liberty and Sydney Opera House being among the most popular. Prospective immigrants troll the Internet, browsing real estate listings and schools, examining rankings of the “World’s Most Livable Places.”

Not everyone is leaving, however, as The Christian Science Monitor’s Peter Ford pointed out last week that the number of Chinese who returned home from abroad last year actually rose 40% from 2010. He also tweeted yesterday that the number of Chinese leaving the country fell from 2000 to 2010 if one removes students from the calculation.