RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

For many Americans, the economic future belongs to China. We hear it all the time.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: According to that IMF forecast, China's economy could overtake that of the U.S. to become the biggest by 2016.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Education survey, China scores top marks, U.S. and France lag.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The Chinese are kicking our butt in everything.

MONTAGNE: The view in China is more guarded. Recent surveys by two of China's biggest banks found most of the nation's richest people are thinking about establishing residency in another country or switching their citizenship altogether. Turns out America is high on that list, as NPR's Frank Langfitt discovered.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Last fall, wealthy Chinese gathered at a Beijing hotel to hear a pitch by Patrick Quinn, the governor of Illinois. He wanted them to invest in a convention center project at O'Hare airport.

GOVERNOR PATRICK QUINN: You can't have capitalism without capital. So we really are interested in encouraging people from everywhere, but particularly here in China, our good friends, the people of China, to consider Illinois as a place to make investments.

LANGFITT: The required minimum investment: half a million dollars. In exchange, Chinese investors could get a green card or permanent U.S. residency in less than three years. The program run by the U.S. government is called investor immigration.

Oliver Hua, who does market research for Western companies here, attended an O'Hare investor event in Shanghai this month. Hua says rich Chinese want green cards so they can protect their wealth as China's economy inevitably slows.

OLIVER HUA: Everybody worries. If you have money, you worry, because there's so much assets. Tomorrow, these assets are going down. So much worries.

LANGFITT: Hua attended the Shanghai event on behalf his brother, a wealthy real estate developer. Hua said his brother's interested in emigrating so he can transfer assets outside of China more easily.

In China's one-party system, businessmen rely on relationships with the government to prosper. Hua says if things turn sour, there's no protection.

HUA: You get rich working with the government. If you don't work with them, then you may get nothing and you may lose everything. That probably is the most dangerous situation.

LANGFITT: Many wealthy Chinese are anxious, because despite China's tremendous progress, the country still faces a lot of challenges. Income inequality is staggering, corruption systemic and public protests a daily occurrence.

Leo Yang manages a company that helps wealthy Chinese get green cards.

LEO YANG: (Through translator) Many people have questions about the uncertainty surrounding China's economy, so they start looking for a second or third option.

LANGFITT: Last fiscal year, nearly 3,000 well-to-do Chinese applied for investor green cards in the U.S. That's up from just 270, four years ago. A recent survey by Bank of China and Hurun, a company that tracks China's rich, found that 60 percent of Chinese millionaires have either emigrated, are in the process of doing so, or thinking about it. A China Merchant's Bank Report found the top reason was a better education for their children. The second: protecting assets.

Again, Leo Yang, who switches to English.

YANG: I think, last year, all the clients buy may be a hundred house in the United States. Yeah, a hundred houses.

LANGFITT: Yang says Chinese like U.S. real estate because they can own it in total. And they can pass the homes onto their children. In China, the government controls the land. People can own houses, but they can only lease the land underneath.

YANG: We buy the house, we can only use it for 70 years. But in America or some country, we can get the land forever. So definitely, my client always want to buy something forever. Right?

LANGFITT: Yang says most Chinese who apply for investment immigration are legitimate. But he says five to 10 percent want to hide money they got through corruption.

YANG: So these people want to put money outside China. And, you know, washing - we call it washing money. So I have some client come to my company say, I have money. I don't have any document. I say no, no, no, no. This is illegal.

LANGFITT: Andy Zhang is a far more typical candidate for residency. He studies automotive engineering in a technical school in Houston.

Home in Shanghai on break, Zhang, 23, attended the investor event to learn more about a green card. He says a green card could help him advance in the U.S.

ANDY ZHANG: It can bring me some benefits such as education or employment. It get easier to get employed.

LANGFITT: How do u like living in the States?

ZHANG: Love it. I used to live in Arkansas for two years, so the lifestyle over there is quite different. It's quiet and cozy and... But Shanghai, the life pace is too fast.

LANGFITT: Zhang isn't giving up on his homeland. He hopes to work in the U.S. for BMW for several years and then probably return to China.

Another person looking for residency in another country is Leo Li. He works in the solar panel business. In the next several years, Li hopes to save enough money to qualify for investment immigration in Singapore or Canada. One reason: more freedom. Li explains by way of a joke: A boss is questioning a Chinese employee on why he wants to move overseas.

LEO LI: You're not satisfied with China, with the work? He says, Ah, I'm pretty satisfied with the work. Ah, with the pay? He says, the pay is good. How about the politicians? Oh, it's nice in China. Then why are you still moving out? So the guy said, because in other country, I can say I'm not satisfied.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LI: Now you understand?

LANGFITT: Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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