Panicked Chinese billionaires scramble to move their cash and themselves out

The once booming landscape of China’s billionaire elite is undergoing a significant transformation as an increasing number of the super-rich are exploring ways to move their money and themselves out of the country.

China’s financial elites have long sought avenues to transfer their wealth overseas, driven by concerns about political turbulence and economic uncertainties.

Officially, China imposes a strict limit on individuals transferring funds abroad, capping it at $50,000 per year. However, in practice, affluent individuals employ a range of both official and unofficial methods to relocate their fortunes.

These strategies may include using money exchanges in Hong Kong, where capital controls do not apply, or investing in foreign businesses.

The recent arrests of individuals involved in illegal foreign exchange transactions, such as the case in Shanghai where five people, including the company’s owner, were arrested, indicate the Chinese government’s efforts to curb unauthorised fund transfers. These actions aim to maintain financial market stability.

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Before the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated $150 billion flowed out of China annually through tourists taking their money abroad. Although international travel has not fully recovered to pre-pandemic levels, factors like high US interest rates and a weak yuan continue to motivate cash-rich Chinese to seek opportunities abroad, according to economists.

In the first half of 2023, there was a $19.5 billion deficit in China’s balance of payments, which economists interpret as a sign of capital flight. However, the actual extent of unofficial capital leaving the country may surpass this figure.

Alicia Garcia Herrero, the chief economist for Asia Pacific at Natixis, highlighted the high level of uncertainty surrounding China’s economic policies and business prospects as a major factor driving individuals to move their savings abroad.

In 2021, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, emphasised “common prosperity”, suggesting that tycoons should share their wealth more broadly. However, the pressure on business elites persists, prompting many to explore exit strategies.

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This change marks a stark contrast from the 1990s and early 2000s when China was focused on economic reforms and wealth accumulation in preparation for joining the World Trade Organisation. Under Xi’s leadership, the emphasis has shifted towards political control over economic freedom.

As a result, an increasing number of wealthy Chinese are considering relocating to nearby destinations. Luxury condos in Singapore have witnessed a surge in mainland Chinese buyers, and there is a substantial rise in the number of single-family offices dedicated to managing the wealth of Chinese clients.

Not only are the wealthy looking to move their assets, but they are also exploring options to move themselves out of China. According to Henley & Partners, an immigration consultancy, a growing number of high-net-worth individuals are expected to leave China this year, reflecting concerns about political risks and a perceived lack of economic opportunity.

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