In 2022, a year that proved extremely challenging for China, many Chinese businesspeople moved abroad, temporarily or for good.
SINGAPORE — They left after the government cracked down on the private sector. They ran away from a harsh “zero COVID” policy. They searched for safe havens for their wealth and their families.
They went to Singapore; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Malta; London; Tokyo; and New York — anywhere but their home country of China, where they felt that their assets and their personal safety were increasingly at the mercy of the authoritarian government.
In 2022, a year that proved extremely challenging for China, many Chinese businesspeople moved abroad, temporarily or for good. They were part of a wave of emigration that led to one of the year’s top online catchphrases, “runxue,” understood to mean running away from China.
A consequential, if privileged, piece of China’s economic puzzle, these people are pulling their wealth and businesses out when growth is at its lowest point in decades.
Many of them are still scarred by the past few years, during which China’s leadership went after the country’s biggest private enterprises, vilified its most celebrated entrepreneurs, decimated entire industries with arbitrary regulation and refused to budge on COVID-19 policies when many businesses were struggling.
Although the government’s tone and policies have turned more business-friendly in recent weeks, the entrepreneur class — who have lost revenue, fortunes and, most of all, confidence in the leadership — will not easily be swayed.
Now that they have lived free of fear in other countries, they are reluctant to put themselves and their businesses under the thumb of the Chinese Communist Party again, a number of them said during discussions in Asia, Europe and the United States — at least, not until they can be assured the state will have to follow the same laws as the citizens.
“When you don’t have a say in how a government makes rules, you don’t have to stay there,” said Aginny Wang, co-founder of a crypto banking startup, Flashwire, who moved from Beijing to Singapore in June after getting trapped in Shanghai’s COVID lockdown on a business trip. “There are many other places where you can do things.”
As they searched for such a place, many in China’s business elite zeroed in on Singapore.
In a small office in that city-state’s central business district, J.C. Huo was constantly taking calls as he served visitors tea from a bamboo tray.
Huo, founder of Lotusia, an advisory firm that handles business registrations and visa applications in Singapore, said his Chinese client list had quickly expanded over the past year. People in the education, games, cryptocurrency and fintech industries in China — all targets of government crackdowns over the past few years — had sought his services.
During the Shanghai lockdown, his phone lines “were ringing off the hook,” he said. The wealthy, he said, realized that no matter how much money they had, they still had to scramble for food and supplies under the harsh restrictions of “zero COVID.”
Even during the past few weeks, after the Chinese government rolled out the red carpet for the private sector and Hong Kong vowed to attract crypto talent from mainland China, Huo has been busy fielding requests.
“The entrepreneurs are still pessimistic,” he said. “As long as people are worried about their assets, they’ll register their companies in Singapore and put their money here.”
J.C. Huo, whose company helps businesses register in Singapore, in Singapore, Oct. 4, 2022.
For such people, Singapore works because about 3 million of its citizens, or three-fourths, are ethnic Chinese, and many speak Mandarin. They also like that it is business-friendly, global-minded and, most of all, upholds the rule of law.
People in the West may bristle at Singapore’s limitations on individual freedom. But for most Chinese, a government that respects the rule of law and doesn’t arbitrarily change its policies is good 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. “Its policies have more continuity.”
Chen and others I met in Singapore said they had no intention of moving to Hong Kong, despite that city’s enthusiastic attempts to woo people like them in recent months.
For decades, Hong Kong played the role of safe haven for mainland entrepreneurs because of its autonomy from China. That crumbled after Beijing introduced a national security law in the territory in 2020, ushering in the arrest of activists, the seizure of assets, the detention of newspaper editors, the rewriting of school curricula and what many see as the compromising of judicial independence.
Chen moved to Singapore because crypto trading, his industry, is banned in China. He kept some developers in the country, but most of his operations are outside it. He said being in Singapore helped him to think more globally. And he was skeptical that Hong Kong could separate its crypto policies from Beijing’s.
“When entrepreneurs chose to move to Singapore, it means they have chosen to leave China,” he said. Hong Kong is not attractive to people who have made that choice, he added.
Singapore has become a strong rival to Hong Kong as a place for China’s superrich to park their wealth. Four of the 10 wealthiest Singaporeans on Forbes’ billionaire list are recent Chinese immigrants. So many people arrived last year that a startup founder said he had put on weight from all the welcome dinners.
The rush of elite Chinese businesspeople to Singapore has contributed to a rise in the cost of living here. Average rent for a 1,000-square-foot condo apartment was about $3,500 a month at the end of September, up more than one-fifth from the start of 2022, according to 99.co, a property portal. The cost of a license to own a vehicle rose nearly 40% last year.
Singapore is also competing with Hong Kong as a place for mainland Chinese companies to register separate entities for their international operations. Some entrepreneurs want to build up their global brands by identifying as Singaporean 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 around the world.
Liu is moving his Hong Kong operations to the city-state. He said he would start using his Singapore entity to release and market games for international markets.
Singapore has also emerged as something of a buffer zone as geopolitical tensions between China and the United States escalate. For some, a passport from Singapore is attractive because it has good relations with both countries.
Governments around the world are increasingly wary of Beijing’s influence on Chinese businesses. Many want to know whether those companies are keeping their citizens’ personal data safe and whether investments by Chinese entities have implications for national security.
Such scrutiny has led some Chinese entrepreneurs to seek foreign passports or at least permanent resident status in other countries. A few said they feared their Chinese passports could leave them vulnerable if China should invade Taiwan, provoking the kind of sanctions imposed on Russia and its businesses since the war in Ukraine began.
Entrepreneurs in Singapore admit that 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 of them said. Some wealthy, relatively young Chinese who have moved here don’t have much to do but drink a lot of Moutai, the Chinese liquor.
Nearly all would have preferred to stay in China if the circumstances had been different. It is a colossal market with great infrastructure, the best supply chain in the world and an abundant supply of programmers willing to work overtime.
Most of them still maintain some business operations there. But they’re not going to rush back, invest more and open new businesses just because the government cajoled them.
“The entrepreneurs don’t dare to take risks anymore,” said Huo. “They have to think twice before doing anything — whether they’ll put their safety into jeopardy.”