China's 'Wealth Drain': New Signs That Rich Chinese Are Set on Emigrating

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This post is in partnership with Worldcrunch, a new global—news site that translates stories of note in foreign languages into English. The article below was originally published in Economic Observer.

BEIJING — Is China facing a "Wealth Drain"? Do too many of the best and brightest — and above all, richest — Chinese dream of packing up their accumulated capital, and going to live abroad?

According to a new study, a majority of Chinese who have more than 10 million Yuan ($1.53 million) worth of individual assets find the idea of real—estate investment a lot less tempting than so—called "investment emigration." Nearly 60% of people interviewed claim they are either considering emigration through investment overseas, or have already completed the process, according to the 2011 Private Wealth Report on China published by China Merchants Bank and a business consulting firm Bain & Company. The richer you are, the study suggests, the likelier it is that you resort to emigration. And among those who possess more than 100 million yuan, 27 % have already emigrated while 47% are considering leaving.

The fact that more and more rich Chinese are seeking to emigrate is turning into a hot topic in China, and statistics prove that the trend is a real one. According to Caixin online, a Chinese website specialized in finance, the compound annual growth rate of overseas investment by Chinese individuals approached 100% between 2008 and 2010. The compound growth rate of the Chinese who used investments to emigrate to the United States in the past five years is 73%.

So why are wealthy Chinese so eager to leave their country? The simplest answer is that there are a lot of things in China that even the richest cannot buy (emigration is obviously not one of them). China's rich are fond of saying that nothing "is a problem if money can solve it." Among the irresolvable problems that spark emigration, there are material ones, and emotional ones.

The former includes issues like laws and regulations, the education system, social welfare, inheritance tax, quality of air, investing atmosphere, food safety, ability to travel, and so on. In short, these are the material factors that any State must provide to its people in order to ensure their happiness. In emerging countries such as China, these factors are still often found wanting.

Emotional reasons behind rich people's immigration are generally linked to the lack of a sense of personal safety, including safety of personal wealth, as well as fear about an uncertain future.

It thus appears that it is a certain "lack of well—being" that is pushing wealthy Chinese to emigrate. The results of the Private Wealth Report are very much in line with other studies. A recent Gallop Wellbeing Survey showed that most Chinese people feel depressed, even as China has sky—high economic growth rates that Europe and America can only dream of. According to the survey, which asked respondents to choose between "thriving," "struggling," and "suffering" to describe their situation, only 12% think themselves as "thriving," while 17% describe themselves as "suffering," and 71% "struggling." The number of Chinese who feel that their life is improving is comparable to the number of Afghans and Yemeni who feel the same way, while the number of persons feeling they are "struggling" is approximately the same as in Haiti, Azerbaijan and Nepal.

It is a paradox that, in a country where more and more people are getting richer by the day — albeit to the detriment of the poor, who have benefitted very little from the country's new wealth — the general feeling of well—being should remain at rock—bottom. The poor grumble while the rich flee.

The truth is that, unless they emigrate, the wealthy have to suffer from the same causes of unhappiness as the poor. Take food safety. Last year, when a Chinese woman living in Canada was asked by the International Herald Tribune why she had left her country, she said it was because of the Sanlu (toxic baby milk) case, and also because of the "hatred against the rich." Her answer highlights the fact that, as the gap between the rich and the poor is getting wider, and the poor are complaining more and more, the rich are also getting more nervous. Some rich people even worry that the "redistribution of wealth might start all over again."

Although the danger seems overblown for now, people are starting to wonder where the public hatred of the rich might lead. The wealthy also know that they bear some of the responsibility for the unequal distribution of wealth. The so—called "original sin of wealth" is not totally without foundation, and it is often difficult for the rich to stop enriching themselves. Fluctuating market conditions bring out a survival instinct that sometimes makes them commit illegal or immoral acts. Once they realize this, they often chose to avoid the trap by emigrating and starting afresh.

The situation would not be as serious, of course, if the number of people deciding to leave were low. But once a few personal choices take the shape of a massive drain, the consequences of their departure on the economy and on society, through the example they set, can be dire.

An even bigger cause of concern is that, when rich people pack their money and leave, not only are they no longer identifying with their country, but they are also avoiding their social obligations. While the reason behind these people's decision matters little, the undeniable fact is that they make money from this society, but they refuse to give anything back.

Rich people who decide to move to a foreign country should know that, by doing so, they are stoking the dissatisfaction among those who stay behind. The poor get angrier because they cannot leave, and their hatred towards the remaining rich grows even bigger. This is the most corrosive thing that can happen to a society.

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