SINGAPORE – They left after the government cracked down on the private sector.
They fled a tough “zero COVID” policy.
They sought safe havens for their property and their families.
They went to Singapore, Dubai (United Arab Emirates), Malta, London, Tokyo and New York, everywhere except China, your country of originwhere they felt their possessions and personal safety were increasingly at the mercy of authoritarian rule.
In 2022, an extremely difficult year for China, many Chinese businessmen have moved abroadtemporarily or forever.
They were part of an emigration wave that led to one of the most popular phrases of the year on the Internet, “runxue“, which means fleeing China.
An important, if privileged, piece of China’s economic puzzle, these people are pulling out their wealth and businesses as growth is at its lowest point in decades.
Many of them are still scarred by recent years, during which Chinese leaders hounded the country’s largest private companies, vilified its most celebrated entrepreneurs, decimated entire industries with arbitrary regulation, and refused to budge on COVID-19 policies. 19 when many companies were in trouble.
Although the government’s tone and policies have become more business-friendly in recent weeks, the business class – which has lost income, fortunes and, above all, trust in leaders – will not be easily convinced.
Now that they have lived free from fear in other countries, they are reluctant to get themselves and their businesses back on their feet under the thumb by the Communist Party of China, according to several of them during talks held in Asia, Europe and the United States;
at least, not until it is guaranteed that the state will have to comply the same laws compared to citizens.
“When you don’t have a say in how a government makes the rules, you don’t have to sit there,” said Aginny Wang, co-founder of a crypto banking startup,
Flashwire, which moved from Beijing to Singapore in June after being stuck in Shanghai’s COVID lockdown on a business trip.
“There are many other places where things can be done.”
While looking for that place, many of China’s business elite noticed it. Singapore.
In a small office in the city-state’s central business district, JC Huo was constantly answering calls while serving visitors tea on a bamboo tray.
Huo, founder of Lotusia, a consultancy that handles business registration and visa applications in Singapore, said his list of Chinese clients has expanded rapidly over the past year.
People from the fields of eeducation, games, cryptocurrency and financial technologies from China – all subjected to repressive measures by the government in recent years – had requested his services.
During the Shanghai blockade, its phone lines “wouldn’t stop ringing,” he says.
The wealthy realized that no matter how much money they had, they had to get food and supplies under harsh “COVID zero” restrictions.
Even in recent weeks, after the Chinese government rolled out the red carpet for the private sector and Hong Kong pledged to attract cryptographic talents from mainland China, Huo has been busy responding to inquiries.
“Entrepreneurs continue to be pessimistic,” he says.
“As long as people are concerned about their assets, they will register their companies in Singapore and put their money here.”
For these people, Singapore works because about 3 million, or three-quarters, of its citizens are ethnic Chinese and many speak Mandarin.
They also like that it is a business-friendly country, with a global mindset and most importantly, that it respects the rule of law.
Westerners may resent Singapore’s restrictions on individual freedom.
But for most Chinese, a government that respects the rule of law and doesn’t arbitrarily change its policies It’s enough.
“Singapore will not crack down on a company or an industry outside its legal framework,” said Chen Yong, founder of Pionex, a cryptocurrency exchange, who moved here from Beijing in 2021.
“His policies have more continuity.”
Chen and other people I met in Singapore said so they had no intention move to Hong Kong, despite that city’s enthusiastic attempts to attract people like them in recent months.
For decades, Hong Kong has played the role of a safe haven for mainland businessmen due to its autonomy from China.
Everything fell apart after Beijing introduced a national security law in the territory in 2020, which led to the arrest of activists, the confiscation of assets, the detention of newspaper editors, the rewriting of school curricula and what many consider the commitment of the judicial independence.
Chen moved to Singapore because cryptocurrency trading, his industry, is banned in China.
It keeps some developers in the country, but most of its operations are done outside of it.
. He said being in Singapore helped him think more globally.
And he was skeptical about the possibility that it could separate its cryptocurrency policies from those of Beijing.
“When businessmen decide to move to Singapore, it means they have decided to leave China,” he said.
Hong Kong is not attractive to those who have made this choice, he added.
Singapore has become a strong rival Hong Kong as a place for the super rich Chinese to park their wealth.
Four of the 10 richest Singaporeans on Forbes’ list of billionaires are recent Chinese immigrants.
Last year, so many people came that a startup founder said he got fat from all the welcome dinners.
The influx of elite Chinese businessmen to Singapore has contributed to the rising cost of living.
The median rent for a 1,000-square-foot condo was about $3,500 a month at the end of September, more than a fifth higher than at the start of 2022, according to 99.co, a real estate portal.
The cost of licensing to own a vehicle increased by almost 40% last year.
Singapore also competes with Hong Kong as a place where Mainland Chinese companies can register independent entities for their international operations.
Some entrepreneurs want to build their global brands by identifying themselves as Singapore companies.
To the outside world, “Hong Kong is part of China, while Singapore is not,” said Yu-Ning Liu, founder of Karma Games in Beijing, which develops games played by people from all over the world.
Liu is moving its operations from Hong Kong to the city-state.
It said it would begin using its Singapore entity to launch and market games for international markets.
Singapore has also become something of a buffer zone in the face of rising geopolitical tensions between China and the United States.
For some, a Singapore passport is attractive because it holds Good relationships with both countries.
Governments around the world are increasingly wary of Beijing’s influence on Chinese companies.
Many want to know if those companies keep their citizens’ personal data safe and if investments by Chinese entities have national security implications.
This scrutiny has led some Chinese businessmen to seek foreign passports or at least permanent resident status in other countries.
Some said they feared their Chinese passports could make them vulnerable if China invaded Taiwan, triggering the kind of sanctions imposed on Russia and its companies since the start of the war in Ukraine.
Singaporean businessmen admit it has its limitations.
It’s small and expensive, and the talent pool is shallow.
It’s an easy place to enjoy life, but not ideal for starting, say, an ambitious tech company, many say.
Some relatively young and wealthy Chinese who have moved here don’t have much to do except drink a lot of Moutai, the Chinese liquor.
Most everyone would have preferred stay in China if the circumstances had been different.
It’s a behemoth market with a large infrastructure, the best supply chain in the world, and an abundant supply of programmers willing to work overtime.
Most of them continue to maintain some business operations there.
But they won’t go back, invest more and open new businesses just because the government sucked them up.
“Entrepreneurs no longer dare to take risks,” Huo says.
“They have to think twice before doing anything: if they want to jeopardize their safety.”
c.2023 The New York Times Society
Mark Jones is a world traveler and journalist for News Rebeat. With a curious mind and a love of adventure, Mark brings a unique perspective to the latest global events and provides in-depth and thought-provoking coverage of the world at large.