The Migration of the Rich — and Nervous — Chinese

By David North on June 14, 2016

If Emma Lazarus were alive today, and paying attention to the most recent wave of migrants to the United States — wealthy Chinese — she might write:

Give me your rich,
your lawyered masses,
yearning to breathe free.

These movements from China run exactly contrary to one of the fundamental rules of international migration: Routinely the elite do not migrate, since things are going very well at home, thank you. So why — and how — are so many wealthy Chinese trying to migrate to the United States, or in many cases, trying to see to it that their children can do so?

I did not realize it at the time — Thanksgiving dinner a couple of years ago — but one of our guests was an exemplar of this migration. We had not invited him as a symbol of anything, we simply knew that my step-grandson had a prep schoolmate who was thousands of miles from his family and would be at loose ends on that Thursday, so we asked him to join us.

The teenager was good company, at ease with adult conversations, bright, cheerful, and cosmopolitan. He had attended American schools for the last couple of years, was born in Hong Kong under the Union Jack, and his father owned a casino in former Portuguese Macau. It turned out that the father distinctly did not want his children to grow up in the family business, which is one of the reasons he sent them to the United States in their teens.

What does it say about a society when many of its top 1 percent want to give their children a chance to live in some other country? You might see it is a disconnect between economic and political power. The rich in China do not have a sense of personal security, like that enjoyed by those in the establishments of the United States and Western Europe. It may take a century before the growth of the rule of law in China catches up with its economic growth.

So the Chinese rich want to maintain their own high incomes and, at the same time, make it possible for their kids to know a different and better life.

My specialty is not China — I have been there only briefly, and did not study it in college. I see China through the specialized lens of a student of international migration, particularly as it impacts the United States. The discomfort of the wealthy Chinese can be seen in three different immigration patterns that have become more noticeable in recent years.

One of these is "birth tourism," another is the flood of students from China to our colleges and universities, and the third is the heavy concentration of Chinese investors in the EB-5 (buy-a-visa) program. The motives for these three have much in common.

Give Birth Here. If a well-to-do couple is really thinking ahead, and worried about the nation where they live, they can decide to have a baby in another country, preferably one with birthright citizenship, like the United States. This is a sure-fire way to secure dual citizenship for the baby; further, it will give the child the opportunity to attend a U.S. university as a citizen rather than as a foreign student (which can result in lower tuition costs in many cases). Further, much later, at the age of 21, the child can file migration papers for his or her parents.

Statistics on birth tourism are scarce, but the press coverage usually focuses on Chinese participants.

The problem is that if you do not make this decision at the right moment, you cannot obtain a do-over. And since many Chinese figure out only after a child is born that having a U.S. passport would be a good idea, they often use one of the other two routes.

Study Here. Parents can see three good outcomes after a Chinese citizen attends a college in the United States:

  • He or she marries an American, perhaps of Chinese origin; or
  • She or he gets on the F-1-OPT-H-1B-green card sequence due to a job in the United States; or
  • He or she has an American degree, which is well thought of in China.

That's part of the rationale for the 304,040 students from China in our colleges and universities, according to the annual Open Doors poll conducted by the Institute for International Education. There are more of them than from any other nation, with India coming in a distant second in 2015 at 132,888.

Invest Here. The quickest route, though there is now a waiting list several years long, is to invest half a million dollars in an EB-5 project. The nervous parents first get a set of temporary and then permanent green cards for themselves and their children under 21. Something like 85 percent of the applicants for this program are from China.

Getting back to the children, we heard that there was a couple in China asking about buying the EB-5 visa for their nine-year-old kid; in this way the child would get a green card, but the parent's names would not be made known and the father could continue his current well-paid position with a government-owned company. Sorry — you have to be 18 to use the EB-5 program, and there will be questions, certainly at that age, about the source of the funds.

Given the frequency with which Chinese investors have been fleeced in this program, it is probably useful for those Chinese wanting their children to breathe free that they hire their own American lawyers to make sure that, in fact, the lamp is lit beside the golden door.