By Moustafa Daly
Ever since their inception in the 1980s, global residency and citizenship by investment programs (RCBIs) have been popular among affluent applicants from developing countries seeking to gain global mobility and preserve their wealth by obtaining second passports or residencies in more developed economies.
The same period witnessed the Chinese economic boom which catapulted China from a developing nation to the world’s fastest growing and second biggest economy. This rise led to an expansion of the middle class and wealthy citizens and coupled with China’s vast population, this triggered Chinese applicants being the biggest nationality seeking RCBI programs across the globe.
In fact, the number of super-rich Chinese has increased 10 times since the onset of the new millennium, according to a 2023 wealth report. According to the Henley report, China currently has 2,250 centimillionaires (with fortunes of $100 million and up) and 285 billionaires – not to mention almost 800,000 high-net-worth Chinese (with fortunes of $30 million and up), making it second only to the US when it comes to concentration of wealthy individuals – and further solidifying it as a primary market for RCBI programs across the world.
“Affluent individuals regardless of nationality or where they live in the world are predictably looking to unlock access to countries that offer a better quality of life, top-tier healthcare, and world-class academic institutions for their family, but above all, they want the option of being able to live or relocate to safe, politically stable jurisdictions that protect and preserve their wealth,” says Dominic Volek, group executive committee member and group head of private clients at Henley & Partners.
Appetite for second residencies has increased substantially amongst wealthy Chinese over the past two years. This has led to an exodus of sorts, with many Chinese opting for second passports to protect their assets and avert political instability.
“Golden Visa programs in Europe are still the most popular RCBI destinations for Chinese families,” explains Volek. “Before Covid, about a quarter of North Asian applicants applied for European residence by investment, another quarter opted for Caribbean investment migration programs, and the remaining half applied for programs in Asia. However, Covid has shifted things, and now over 40% of applications are for European programs, 30% for Caribbean programs, with applications for Asian programs have dropped to 20%.”
But what are the RCBI programs Chinese applicants have sought the most? We explore the top six programs below.
Since the 2013 launch of the Portuguese golden visa, it became a favored option for any investor seeking EU residency and a path to citizenship – particularly Chinese applicants.
The program’s straight forward application process and relatively low investment threshold of $250,000 made it the most sought after program by Chinese applicants to date. Chinese applicants remained the biggest nationality applying for this golden visa program, reaching about 5000 applicants over the past decade.
The Portugal golden visa program, however, may soon come to an end. And in the past year, American applicants replaced Chinese as the biggest applicant group.
Malta is another EU golden visa program that’s been popular amongst wealthy Chinese applicants. Though the program is under EU scrutiny for its perceived lax due diligence and (now suspended) CBI route, it remained a viable option for wealthy individuals seeking quick EU access for an investment starting at €600,000.
Up until 2022, over 5300 families were granted Maltese permanent residency under the program, with Chinese investors making up 87% of applicants.
While these two programs have been the two most popular amongst Chinese investors in Europe, other options are also on the table.
“With the imminent closure of Portugal’s Golden Resident Permit Program, clients are shifting to consider other options,” explains Volek. “Enquiries for the Greece Golden Visa Program, the Italy Residence by Investment Program, and the Spain Residence by Investment Program have grown substantially.”
Antigua and Barbuda
Since 2013, the Antigua and Barbuda program has attracted global investors seeking visa-free access to Europe, the UK and other desirable destinations in exchange for a $200,000 donation – which was reduced to $100,000 in 2017.
Easily obtained and quite accessible, and with favorable tax regimes, the program proved popular amongst Chinese applicants, who made up more than half of applicants to Antigua’s CBI program since its inception.
Grenada is another Caribbean island which Chinese golden passport investors seem to favor. In addition to all the benefits enjoyed by obtaining other Caribbean citizenships, Grenada offers a route to the E-2 visa in the U.S. which adds to its attractiveness for Chinese applicants seeking U.S. residency (although the Biden administration has recently introduced a 3-year domiciliation requirement for E-2 visa applicants.)
Though no exact applicant nationality figures are made available by the Grenada Citizenship Investment Unit, it’s been reported that the majority of applicants to its golden passports hail from China. In 2018, 98% of all applicants were Chinese.
St. Kitts and Nevis
The St Kitts and Nevis citizenship by investment program is a pioneer, having been established in 1984 and ever since being one of the most popular programs in the Caribbean.
A strong passport and developed infrastructure make St. Kitts and Nevis a popular CBI destination amongst wealthy Chinese applicants, placing it among the top 3 programs for such applicants.
A thriving world economy in close proximity to China, Singapore has seen rising popularity among Chinese RBI investors in recent years, particularly following the pandemic. The island-nation’s Global Investor Program (GIP) was launched in 2004, granting five-year residency in exchange for a $1.86 million investment – which was recently quadrupled to over $7 million.
The threshold, presumably one of the world’s highest, makes access to the program almost exclusive to the richest Chinese, ultra-high-net-worth-individuals. Following Covid-19 and the stringent anti-Covid policy at home, in addition to political instability, the program has seen its popularity among Chinese applicants rise sharply.
“It really has emerged as a safe haven not only for living but for parking assets/wealth,” explains Volek from Henley & Partners. “Aside from Hong Kong S.A.R, Singapore is the only highly developed country that is convenient to travel to from China, and which also uses Mandarin as one of its official languages.”
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