More than 500 Chinese people obtained European Union citizenship in the island nation of Cyprus between 2017 and 2019, including Asia’s richest woman, according to leaked documents obtained by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit.
The documents, which are said to contain information on 2,500 immigrants to Cyprus during that time frame, appear to shed light on the secretive migration plans of China’s elite.
Al Jazeera, the Qatari state-owned broadcaster, did not disclose the full list of immigrants who were granted citizenship in Cyprus under the so-called golden passports programme, as the disclosure focuses on people with track records that could violate rules for obtaining European Union citizenship.
Among the more than 500 approved Chinese applicants, the broadcaster provided eight names, led by Yang Huiyan, a principal owner of Chinese property developer Country Garden.
Yang was named by Forbes as the sixth-richest women in the world in 2020 with a fortune of US$20.3 billion. Country Garden did not reply to multiple requests for comment.
It is legal for Chinese citizens to apply for permanent residency or citizenship in foreign countries. However, once a Chinese national obtains foreign citizenship, it can result in the automatic loss of their Chinese citizenship, as China does not recognise dual nationality.
Among the eight Chinese applicants named by Al Jazeera, five, including Yang, were disclosed because they could be viewed as “politically exposed persons” for their own membership or their family’s membership in the Chinese legislature and political consultative committees.
Yang’s wealth came mainly from her father, Yeung Kwok Keung. He is a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the top political consultative body to Beijing.
The leaked documents showed that Yang was granted Cypriot citizenship on October 23, 2018.
The second Chinese “politically exposed person” is Lu Wenbin, a delegate to the Chengdu People’s Congress. According to the documents provided by Al Jazeera, Lu obtained a Cypriot passport in July 2019. Lu is the chairman of Sichuan Troy Information Technology, a computer-networking firm based in the city. Calls to Lu’s company were not answered.
Chen Anlin, a CPPCC member in the Huangpi district of Wuhan in Hubei province and a director at CECEP Central China Industry Development, a subsidiary of the state-owned China Energy Conservation and Environmental Protection Group, was granted Cypriot citizenship in July 2018; Fu Zhengjun, who was a member of the municipal committee of the CPPCC for the city of Jinhua in Zhejiang province from 2011 to 2017, was granted a Cypriot passport in November 2017; and Zhao Zhenpeng, a member in the local CPPCC of Binzhou in Shandong province, obtained his citizenship in February 2019, according to Al Jazeera.
Calls to the companies of Chen and Zhao went unanswered. Emails to Fu’s company also received no reply.
While it is common for rich Chinese entrepreneurs to be members of local legislature and political consultative committees, they could be stripped of their membership if found to be holding foreign passports or not reporting foreign residency.
About a year ago, Sun Xiang, a delegate to the Hebei People’s Congress, was stripped of his membership two days after he was found to be holding a passport from the Caribbean island nation of Saint Kitts and Nevis, issued in 2011.
Also last year, Zhou Yanbo, the chairman of a private school, was stripped of his membership in the Shanxi People’s Political Consultative Committee for hiding his Canadian residency, even though the residency had expired in 2018 and he had not renewed it.
In addition, China has particularly strict rules for employees of government departments and public institutions, as well as senior executives at state-owned enterprises. According to a new Chinese law that came into effect in July, “public sector employees” may be fired if they are found to have obtained foreign citizenship or even foreign permanent residence without approval.
Tang Yong, the current president of China Resources Power Holding, a large Chinese state-owned conglomerate, was also named by Al Jazeera. Tang received his Cypriot passport in January 2019, Al Jazeera said.
An email to China Resources Power seeking comment was not returned.
One Chinese applicant for a Cypriot passport, Li Jiadong, was identified because he had been sanctioned by the US Department of the Treasury. Another Chinese applicant, Zhang Keqiang, was named because he had been sentenced to four years in prison after being convicted of fraud. The South China Morning Post could not immediately reach Li nor Zhang.
Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit said the eight disclosed individuals were just a fraction of the more than 500 Chinese immigrants to Cyprus in the last two to three years, but the great majority of them do not have political connections or criminal records. The Post was not given access to the full list.
In addition, Al Jazeera also provided profiles of 11 Chinese applicants without naming them, including “a former head of investment banking at a China-based securities company”, “the chair of an electrical vehicle maker” and the “CIO of a Hong Kong-based pharmaceutical company”.
According to Al Jazeera, Chinese citizens form the second-largest group of people taking part in the golden passport programme, which requires applicants to invest at least €2.15 million (US$2.54 million) in the country. Russian citizens, with about 1,000 applicants, comprised the largest group.
The new revelations by Al Jazeera offer fresh support to the perception that many rich Chinese are gripped by insecurity about retaining their wealth, even though they could be seen as the biggest beneficiaries of China’s economic boom.
A second passport, or even a third one, offers travel convenience, a way to move money abroad, or even a chance to flee in case something goes wrong – although foreign citizenship has not always been a safeguard against Beijing’s displeasure.
Xiao Jianhua, the Chinese tycoon who left a luxurious hotel in Hong Kong and returned to the mainland to assist a government investigation into his business dealings in early 2017, issued a statement afterwards that he was “Canadian citizen” and a Hong Kong permanent resident who should be protected by the laws of both places. Xiao disappeared soon after and has not been seen since, with his key assets in the Tomorrow Group all sold or put under state-ordered custody.
Cypriot passports offer good value for China’s rich by not requiring physical residence in the tiny country, while granting access to free travel, work and banking in all 27 European Union states.
The European Commission warned in a January 2019 report that golden passports could help organised crime groups infiltrate Europe, while raising the risk of money laundering, corruption and tax evasion.