BEIJING — At 49, Wang Zeqiang has achieved the Chinese equivalent of the American dream. Raised in the cornfields of eastern China's Shandong province, he founded an auto parts business that today has several dozen employees. He has two houses, two cars and, because he's rich enough to pay the fines for defying the country's family planning policy, two children.
Now, all that is missing — what he covets most — is a foreign passport.
"In China, there is so much pressure," said Wang, who recently hired a consulting firm to advise him on his first choice, Australia. He hasn't been there yet, but he's been surfing the Internet and likes what he sees: blue skies, open spaces. "I want to live a relaxed, happy life."
The new Chinese emigres have little in common with earlier waves of unskilled laborers or political exiles. They're not going abroad for economic opportunity — they're already wildly successful — or political activism, but for a quality of life that money can't buy in China.
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."
Melbourne. Mild winters. Good universities. Affordable housing. Check.
Vancouver, Canada. Dramatic ocean views. Low crime. Clean air. Check.
Los Angeles. Business opportunities. Nice weather. Beaches. Check.
"The United States is still everybody's dream, but they worry about crime," said Leon Zhong, president of Xinhaowei Consulting, one of the largest companies advising prospective migrants. "All in all, though, the people who want business opportunities prefer the United States. The young professionals prefer Australia."
To a large extent, the flight reflects pessimism about China's future. The spectacular downfall this year of Politburo member Bo Xilai and his cronies, including many businessmen still in jail, proved that shifting political winds can put anybody in jeopardy, and highlighted the instability of the system.
More immediate, there is the competition for spots in good universities, for housing, for space, for land.
"Scarcity is a very compelling reason," said Zhong, gesturing out the oversize windows of his 30th-floor corner office at the pea soup obscuring what would otherwise be a stunning view of the Beijing skyline. "And to be frank, the environmental hazard is a factor: the air, the poisoned foods."
Zhong, who has been in the emigration business since 1995, says that each of the hundreds of families he's helped have its own reasons.
"At some point something will happen, and they say to themselves, 'I have to go now.'"
Zhong decided he would retire in Australia after a health scare a few years back, when he discovered how difficult it is to get an appointment with a specialist at the top Beijing hospitals.
"I had to send an assistant at 4 a.m. to stand in line so I could get in," said Zhong, who has an Australian passport, having studied business in Melbourne in the 1980s, and travels frequently back and forth. "In Melbourne, I just telephone the doctor and get an appointment."
Wang, the Shandong businessman, said the deciding factor for him has been corruption in the business world. "I have to give out gifts, cash, gift certificates. If I don't give, business won't happen. I'm tired of that."
Tony Du, 33, a consultant at Xinhaowei, says he, like most of his clients, worries most about education. He has secured permanent residency in Canada, thanks to having studied in Paris and speaking fluent French, a prerequisite for a program sponsored by Quebec province.
"My daughter is only 1 1/2 now, but in five or six years we will move for her education," Du said.
For the rich Chinese craving an American lifestyle, the way to go is the EB-5 visa. In September, the program was extended for three years. In fiscal 2011, Chinese made up three-quarters of the applicants. The successful applicants don't need to speak English or have particular business expertise, just the cash. Consulting firms in China put together investment vehicles.
"I like agricultural projects, manufacturing. Real estate and hotels used to be popular, but they're too risky," Du said.
The big disadvantage of the U.S. program from the standpoint of Chinese investors, said Du, is that their immigration status is contingent on the business succeeding. "If the business fails, you lose your green card too."
Doors open and close. A Canadian program that was wildly popular is no longer accepting applicants, but Australia is still taking in rich Chinese by the thousands for ever larger sums of money. The newest program offers residency for the purchase of $5.2 million in treasury bonds.
Last year, Chinese surpassed Britons as Australia's largest source of permanent migrants, with 29,547 arriving.
"The number of people is growing," said Ivy Wang, a breathless real estate broker in Melbourne selling suburban homes at an average price of $600,000 to Chinese newbies. "Australia is pretty easy: There is not much living pressure and the workload isn't too heavy, not like in China."
Many Chinese migrants are conflicted.
"I'm a business major, so I could make more money in Shanghai," said Wang Jun, 24, who works at a Swatch boutique at Melbourne Airport. "I get these customers from Beijing who don't say "thank you" or "hello," and I think how hard it is to go back to China when you've lived in Australia."
At Xinhaowei Consulting, the typical client is older, often somebody who has made money in real estate or pharmaceuticals or has taken a company public. The applicant must show how the money was earned; in short, corrupt government officials need not apply. (The company also steers clear of programs that send pregnant women to the United States to give birth in order to obtain citizenship for their children.)
The most important qualification, Du said, is to be rich: "You need to have that $500,000 in cash."
Du said most of the clients investing in the United States send their spouses and children ahead of them, remaining in China themselves.
Why? To make more money, of course.
"China's economic development is still strong," Du said. "It's the best place to make money, but just not to live."