China’s flight from wealth accelerates as COVID Zero ends

Henley saw more than four times the number of inquiries from Chinese about migration in the days after China reopened compared to the week before. Emigration was low early in the pandemic, but requests doubled in 2022.

Juwai IQI, a real estate company that helps sell international properties to clients in Asia, said inquiries from mainland China buyers fell 26 percent in 2021 and 11 percent in 2022, but rose 55 percent in 2023 far and wide stayed at this level.

The capital outflows will put additional pressure on China's markets.

The capital outflows will put additional pressure on China’s markets.Credit:Bloomberg

Denny Ko, an immigration lawyer in Hong Kong who advises wealthy Chinese clients, said the truly wealthy have had contingency plans for years and people looking for options now tend to be lower down the wealth spectrum, including upper-middle class, entrepreneurs and executives .

Searches and keyword mentions of “emigration” on Wechat nearly quintupled from a day earlier to 110.7 million on December 26, after China downgraded COVID-19 to a lower-threat disease class and announced it would end all quarantine measures.

As the rich seek to invest abroad, private banks have set up their desks to deal with the flow of capital.


They hired in Singapore to cater to wealthy Chinese investing in the city-state. The flood of money has resulted in skyrocketing prices for everything from villas and golf memberships to luxury car sales in Singapore.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Julius Baer Group are among banks staffed with Mandarin speakers in other locations, such as the San Francisco Bay Area and Zurich, respectively, according to people familiar with the matter. A spokeswoman for Julius Baer confirmed that the bank has Mandarin speakers on its team in Switzerland, which serves wealthy clients in the Asia-Pacific region. JPMorgan declined to comment.

Among those wanting to leave is Dahua, whose family runs a pharmaceutical company in central China. This isn’t her first attempt, but she’s more hopeful of getting out now that it’s possible to travel. A previous attempt to obtain a US green card was thwarted when she returned to China before the pandemic and was unable to travel back to the US as she did not spend the required time there.

Dahua, who requested that only her first name be used, is now exploring a program in Canada that would allow applicants to study there and, after a few years of work, eventually gain permanent residency.

Many of her colleagues and friends have either emigrated or are actively exploring the option, she said, with many losing faith in the country’s future.

“Now that we can travel abroad it’s time to reactivate my emigration plan and it should be a lot easier to process these things than it was when we were still in lockdown,” she said.

JPMorgan is a bank that is said to be hiring additional Mandarin-speaking staff at locations outside of China.

JPMorgan is a bank that is said to be hiring additional Mandarin-speaking staff at locations outside of China.Credit:Bloomberg

China has strict capital controls. Citizens can exchange only US$50,000 worth of yuan for foreign currency each year. But despite these restrictions, the reopening of travel is enough to fuel outflows from tourism alone – even if people don’t choose to stay away permanently.

“If tens of millions of people go out and travel this year, it could still put tens of billions of dollars of downward pressure on China’s foreign exchange reserves,” said Chen Zhiwu, associate professor of finance at Hong Kong University.

Chen estimates tourism outflows could reach $100 billion to $200 billion this year, which has not been the case in the past three years due to COVID restrictions. The outflows should put “some depreciation pressure” on the yuan, but the central bank can still step in to keep the currency at overvalued levels, he said.


Chinese families still face challenges when migrating. According to Iris Pang, chief economist for Greater China at ING Groep NV, economic weakness in popular tourist destinations such as Europe and the US could affect the ability of some Chinese to find work in those regions. Immigration policies are also tightening everywhere from Portugal to Malta.

According to a private banker, wealthy individuals told him the cost of sending money offshore had risen to 12 cents per dollar late last year from 1 cent in the years before the pandemic as the government restricted money transfers.

That doesn’t stop those who want to leave. Peter Luo, the chief adviser at Express Immigration, a New Zealand immigration consultancy, said inquiries from Chinese customers keep coming in, with most coming from the business community. “The remarkable thing is that they are very urgent, with a request that applications be approved as soon as possible,” he said.


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Brian Lowry

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