A popular Internet writer recently caused a stir when he asserted that "all
Chinese who earn more than 120,000 yuan [US$17,650] a year want to immigrate".
While this view is exaggerated, there is no denying the upsurge in Chinese
emigration to Western countries - particularly the United States, Canada and
Australia - since the mid-2000s. Most worrying for the Chinese Communist Party
(CCP) leadership is the fact that despite widespread publicity given to the
supposed viability of the "China model", an increasing number of China's elite
are choosing to leave the fast-rising quasi-superpower for the West.
China became the biggest worldwide contributor of emigrants in 2007. According
to the official Chinese media, 65,000 Chinese
last year secured immigration or permanent resident status in the United
States, 25,000 in Canada and 15,000 in Australia. Chinese are outnumbered by
only Mexicans as the largest ethnic group who acquired green cards in the
United States in 2009. Particularly in the area of investment-related
immigration (see below) to major Western countries, Chinese are tipped to
become the largest cohort within the next few years.
Despite the downturn in Western economies in the wake of the financial crisis,
more Chinese students are expected to stay abroad after getting degrees and
professional qualifications. Among the 270,000 Chinese who are going to foreign
universities as self-paying students this year, only around 25% are projected
to return to China upon graduation.
Then there are middle-class and affluent Chinese who take advantage of
liberalized travel regulations to give birth to children in the United States
and other Western countries. It is little wonder that, according to the
Overseas Affairs Office of the State Council, there are more than 45 million huaqiao,
or "overseas Chinese", worldwide.
Emigration to the West started not long after late patriarch Xiaoping
inaugurated the era of reform and open door policy in 1978. Deng's second son,
Deng Zhifang, who gained a PhD in physics from Rochester University and
subsequently became a wealthy businessman in China, was among the first members
of the Chinese elite to settle in the United States. Emigration picked up speed
by the mid-1990s even as coastal China became the "world factory".
Prominent among members of this first wave of emigrants are corrupt officials
who find it safer to park their ill-gotten gains in Western countries. Their
modus operandi is sending spouses and children overseas before slipping away
themselves. By the end of 2009, an estimated 4,000 corruption-tainted cadres
had gone abroad. Each of them reportedly carried with them illicit fortunes
worth at least 100 million yuan.
Owing to China's opaque business and tax laws, most private entrepreneurs deem
it prudent to transfer a good part of their fortunes to Western countries. This
can be legally - and easily - done through investor immigration schemes. The
trend has intensified despite the passage in 2007 of the landmark Property
Rights Law, which guarantees the inviolability of private property in the
A recent investigation by the official Hangzhou Daily noted that around 1,500
businessmen from coastal Zhejiang province emigrate to the West every year -
and the numbers are expected to rise by up to 20% annually in the near future.
In the past decade, emigrants from Zhejiang, known as a haven for private
business, have taken at least 60 billion yuan of assets overseas. Apart from
opportunities of developing their businesses in different markets, these "red
capitalists" have cited the "hate the rich" mentality in China as an important
reason for emigration. Partly owing to the growing gap between the poor and
rich, nouveau riche businessmen often become targets of crimes including
kidnapping and murder.
Yet the largest group of emigrants consists of professionals and experts with a
middle-class background, who, according to well-known immigration consultant Qi
Lisun, outnumber entrepreneurs by a large margin. The official Chinese media
admit that professionals, and to some extent businessmen, are leaving the
country due to dissatisfaction with harrowing contradictions in Chinese
politics and society. In other words, as a result of China being a country that
does not recognize global norms such as civil and democratic rights, many of
its best-trained, most qualified citizens may be "voting with their feet" by
settling in the West.
Indeed, a commentary in the official Xinhua News Agency last month indicated
that many members of China's elite had chosen to relocate to Western countries
"in search for a sense of safety" - a way out of "the pain and aberrations
brought about by social transformation" in the past decade or so. Nie Xiaoyang,
vice chief editor of the popular Globe magazine, said emigrants destined for
the United States were not just after a higher standard of living. "A very
important point is the tolerance and energy of American society," Nie said.
"Its multifaceted cultural environment can give people more confidence."
A recent article on the China Broadcasting Corporation website noted that the
authorities must "boost their respect for talents and furnish them with more
humanistic concern" to persuade high caliber personnel to remain in China. The
commentary also cited the importance of "a transparent system of regulations
and a sense of security" as well as "a fairer environment in which people can
develop their talent".
Partly to counter the brain drain, the State Council, the equivalent to the
cabinet, unveiled last month "The Mid-to Long-term National Plan for the
Development of Talents", which spans the years 2010 to 2020. Beijing's goal is
that by 2020 "China will have entered into the front ranks of countries with
superior human resources".
According to director of the CCP Organization Department Li Yuanchao, "human
resources constitute the core competitiveness in scientific development". Li,
also a Politburo member, pointed out that party-and-state authorities "will not
waver in embarking on the road of [turning China into] a country with
outstanding talents". Earlier, Beijing had in January 2009 launched the
so-called "Thousand Talents Program" to lure accomplished Chinese back from
overseas. Organization chief Li claimed recently, "China is going through the
third wave of talents returning to the motherland."
He said that the first wave, which included "Father of the Republic" Sun
Yat-sen and former premier Zhou Enlai, came back from abroad to overthrow
feudalism. The second wave was a reference to scientists such as rocket experts
Qian Xuesen and Qian Sanqiang, who left high-paying jobs in the US and Europe
in the 1950s. "The third wave is taking place now," Li said, adding that more
foreign-based Chinese than ever are eager to contribute to the modernization
Statistics, however, do not seem to support Li's claims. As of May this year,
central-government units had only attracted 600 or so high-caliber experts and
entrepreneurs under the "Thousand Talents Program". Moreover, most of these
prized haiguipai or "returnees" are businessmen; and many of them have
chosen to hang on to their overseas passports and green cards.
One basic reason behind Beijing's less-than-successful effort to boost the
number of returnees could be that the latter face a glass ceiling in
party-and-government units. Without a record of accomplishment in political
reliability and service to the CCP, it is difficult for the haiguipai to
be given major responsibility. It is perhaps for this reason that while meeting
a group of returnees who have come back under the Thousand Talents Program,
Vice-President Xi Jinping said Beijing would "fully respect talents,
enthusiastically support [their work] and give them free rein in their
pursuits". Xi pledged that haiguipai experts would be "put in key
positions" and that "they would be allowed to take part in professional
decision-making, and be put in charge of big projects".
In a Xinhua News Agency article that ran in July entitled, "The United States
is 'co-opting' elites from around the world", author Ran Wei saluted American
soft power, particularly the country's ability to attract gifted personnel from
different countries. Apart from the allure of high caliber universities and
cutting-edge high-tech firms, Ran cited institutions and systems that
"encourage gifted people to achieve breakthroughs. America puts a lot of stress
on the rational use of human resources and on retaining outstanding personnel,"
Ran wrote. "Much emphasis is put on the free flow of talents and the abolition
of restrictions and discrimination."
It is significant that in its policies regarding retaining talents as well as
enticing huaqiao, Chinese authorities appear to have given top priority
to "hardware" such as salaries, promotion prospects and seed money for starting
new ventures. Yet until the CCP leadership is willing to pay more attention to
"software", particularly modernizing and democratizing socio-political
institutions, the wave of emigration is expected to continue even as China
narrows its gap with the United States in terms of conventional yardsticks such
as gross domestic product and military might.
Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a senior fellow at The Jamestown Foundation. He is
the author of five books on China, including the recently published Chinese
Politics in the Hu Jintao Era: New Leaders, New Challenges.