BEIJING - When the sister of White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushnerin her family's new skyscraper to investors in Beijing earlier this month, she was pitching a American visa program that's proven irresistible to tens of thousands of Chinese.
Over the last decade, more than 100,000 Chinese have poured at least $24 billion into "golden visa" programs across the world, an Associated Press analysis has found. These programs offer residence in exchange for investment in a country's businesses. Nowhere is Chinese demand greater than in the United States, which has taken in at least $7.7 billion and issued more than 40,000 visas to Chinese investors and their families in the past 10 years, the AP found.
One such investor is Jenny Liu, a doctoral student in the coastal city of Nanjing, who sold her apartment two years ago and moved in with her parents. She used the money from the sale to invest $500,000 in a U.S. hotel project. If the project creates enough jobs in two years, she'll get a prized permanent residency -- a "green card" -- and a pathway for a less stressful education for her 9-year-old son.
"My son has a lot of homework to do every day, but I don't think he has learned a lot from school," Liu said. "I hope he can actually pick up some useful knowledge or skills rather than only learn how to pass tests."
The flood of investors is a reminder of how China's rise has catapulted tens of millions of families into the middle class. But at the same time, it shows how these families are increasingly becoming restless as cities remain choked by smog, home prices multiply and schools impose ever-greater pressure on children. They also feel insecure about being able to protect their property and savings.
Their money goes toward government bonds, businesses, mountain ski resorts, new schools and real estate projects, including a Trump-branded tower in New Jersey built by the Kushner Companies, once run by Jared Kushner, now President Donald Trump's son-in-law and a White House senior adviser. But the industry is murky, loosely regulated and sometimes fraud-ridden. In the U.S., federal regulators have linked the EB-5 visa program to fraud cases involving more than $1 billion in investment in the last four years.
Despite criticism from Congress, Mr. Trump signed a spending bill that included a renewal of the program through September, although federal authorities have proposed an increase in the required minimum investment. Just one day later, Kushner's sister, Nicole Meyer, was in Beijing courting Chinese for a new project funded by EB-5. That's raised complaints about conflicts of interest and new calls to revise or even end the program.
"It is a growing industry and we do need more oversight," said Stephen Yale-Loehr, an expert on the program and a professor at Cornell Law School. "EB-5, when it is done properly, can and does benefit the economy."
The lure of a golden visa
The number of Chinese using investment migration programs worldwide tripled between 2010 and 2015, the AP found. In the last decade, Chinese have taken 75 percent of the investor visas issued by the United States, 70 percent for Portugal and 85 percent for Australia. China also remains the top recipient of investor visas in Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Spain, Hungary and Malta.
To be sure, those migrating make up only a small fraction of the around 18 million households that could be considered upper-middle-class or wealthier in China, but they echo the laments of many better-educated, urban Chinese.
"Middle-class investors' choosing to leave shows that their confidence in their future, their dreams and the regime in China is fading," said Zhang Lifan, an independent political scholar in Beijing.
China's "golden visa" investors are part of a wave of migrants characterized not by poverty, persecution or war, but by people with steady jobs and homes who are pursuing happiness that's eluded them in their homeland.
After decades of economic mismanagement and political upheaval, the ruling Communist Party reversed some of its most destructive policies and unleashed a four-decade-long economic boom in the 1970s. That growth lifted 500 million people out of poverty and vaulted generations of Chinese from peasantry into relatively well-paying manufacturing or service jobs. More than 3 million households in China now have an income of more than $34,000 a year, according to the consultancy McKinsey & Company.
Key to their spending power is China's real estate boom. Real estate prices in China's largest cities have more than tripled in the last decade, with prices in Beijing rising by an average of 25 percent a year during that time. Just since late 2015, Beijing's home prices have jumped 63 percent, making a 1,300 square-foot apartment worth more than $1 million.
A family that gained ownership of an ordinary apartment more than a decade ago can now sell it for the price of a "golden visa." And more and more families are choosing to do so, as their dissatisfaction with China's problems grows.
Like Liu, many of about a dozen investors or prospective investors interviewed by the AP say they don't want their children to struggle in China's rigid and intensely competitive education system, which emphasizes rote learning and can stifle creativity.
Cherry Deng, the mother of a 10-year-old boy in Sichuan province, invested in a port construction project in North Carolina through the U.S. EB-5 program. Deng, who used funds from her car dealership business, said she wants her son to learn from the American emphasis on self-reliance. Deng said she sees Chinese parents supporting their children even after they've graduated from college - securing for them homes, jobs and, sometimes, even spouses.
"I don't want to take care of my children forever," Deng said. "I want them to learn how to live independently and to create wealth on their own."
Urban Chinese have also been disgusted by scandals ranging from tainted baby formula to toxic running tracks, and alarmed that even the most prosperous cities are not safe from deadly factory explosions and other man-made disasters.
Despite her success running an online clothing business in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu, Peng Jie isn't confident in her future in China. She sees the prices of property and schools rising and the value of the yuan falling, and fears that success could be taken away.
"In China, we have family and friends, and daily life is convenient," Peng said. But, she added, "someone in the middle class can become poor in one second."
Wooing Chinese investors
China is central to the success of almost every major investment migration program in the world, so many countries are going out of their way to court Chinese investors.
Ads for investment programs pop up on Chinese cellphones and websites, full of promise and intrigue. In crowded hotel ballrooms, foreign officials with pamphlets and flashy presentations tout the same message: Start a new life in a country with better education, clean air and a stable future.
Agents selling U.S. projects to Chinese take great pains to prove their expertise on the states, the EB-5 program and perceived ties to American leaders. Some marketing materials include photos of Chinese posing with former President Barack Obama.
Now, they're competing directly against the current president's relatives.
Meyer, Kushner's sister, appeared this month at events in Beijing and Shanghai to promote One Journal Square, a New Jersey tower project planned by the Kushner family that would be partially funded through EB-5 investment. The presentation included a photo of Mr. Trump and vague promises that the project had "government support" and was "founded by celebrity developers." The company later apologized for any implication that Meyer's brother was supporting the project, and she pulled out of a presentation to Chinese investors scheduled for this past weekend.
Mr. Trump's name already appears on another New Jersey residential tower, Trump Bay Street, built with the help of EB-5 funding. And one month before the November election, an ad appeared on a Chinese website catering to foreigners seeking a "white American to join our team" for a new project: "A 200 million dollar hotel developed by The Trump Organization in Austin." A brochure posted online described Mr. Trump as the "king of real estate" and included a photo of him giving a speech.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer this month said Kushner would follow government policies on potential conflicts of interest, and that the president and Congress would review "all the various visa programs and whether or not they are serving the purpose that they were intended to."
The AP obtained data from officials in 13 countries on how many Chinese have used their investor programs since 2007. To estimate money spent, the organization multiplied the numbers of Chinese investors in each country by the minimum investment required, making the figures an undercount.
The market leader is the United States' EB-5 program, which gives green cards to anyone who invests $500,000 in a business that creates or saves at least 10 jobs. Several others market themselves as cheaper or quicker alternatives.
Portugal has drawn at least $1.7 billion over four years from Chinese investors willing to buy property to support its faltering real estate market. Spain and Greece offer similar programs. Chinese have bought the most visas in all three countries.
Five Caribbean nations offer passports for as little as $100,000. Chinese are the top buyers in Antigua and Barbuda, according to government statistics.
Australia goes the more expensive route, requiring an investment of 5 million Australian dollars (nearly $3.7 million). Despite a price nearly eight times as high as the EB-5 program, Australia is estimated to have attracted more than $6 billion in Chinese investment in just four years.
But problems in the industry worldwide are rife.
Fraught with risk
The U.S.'s EB-5 program has been heavily criticized by government watchdogs and targeted by lawmakers of both parties in Congress, who say it promotes fraud and helps developers building megaprojects more than struggling communities. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who has introduced legislation to end the program, has called EB-5 a "Ponzi scheme." Her Republican counterpart, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, has said EB-5 "poses significant national security risks" and "may be facilitating terrorist travel, economic espionage, money laundering and investment fraud."
Federal investigators said in April they found that at least three Chinese investors who obtained green cards through the program were fugitives wanted by Beijing. And the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has opened more than a dozen civil cases since 2013 alleging fraud in projects involving around 2,000 investors and more than $1 billion in funds.
Defenders of the EB-5 program say it creates jobs and provides vital funding for projects across the United States, from massive developments in New York to hotels, restaurants and small businesses in the Midwest and on the West Coast.
"That's the program working as it should, and more often than not, it is working as it should," said Matthew Galati, a Philadelphia-based attorney who helps Chinese investors migrate to the U.S.
Canada's program drew an estimated $2.4 billion through Chinese investors over the past decade, but the national government ended it in 2014, saying that it "significantly undervalued" Canadian residency and created little economic benefit. The province of Quebec has kept in place its separate program, which has drawn at least $1.9 billion from Chinese investment.
And a former Portuguese interior minister and other senior government officials have been on trial since February for corruption, influence-peddling and misconduct in handling "golden visa" applications of investors linked to three Chinese businessmen. Hungary suspended its program selling visas for government bonds earlier this year after opposition parties and watchdogs accused it of corruption.
Ironically, calls to end investment migration programs often end up as marketing tools for the hundreds of agents selling them in China. One agent made note of proposals to change the EB-5 program by saying, "Do not hesitate, and act quickly!"
Du Juan attended a seminar in Beijing held by an investment group pitching ski resorts and other projects. She knows the potential danger of investing through the U.S. program, but she's willing to bear the risk as long as she can get her 10-year-old daughter enrolled soon in an American school.
"I don't worry about the $500,000, but I worry about the loss of time," Du said. "I am afraid that we'll be unable to get the visa when we need it."
Slowing the flow
There are signs that China is trying to slow down its exodus. These investors are among the category of people China hopes will buy its domestically made rice cookers, electric cars and energy-saving light bulbs to fuel a new chapter of consumer-led growth. Research by McKinsey shows that the upper-middle class already accounts for a fifth of China's private consumption in cities.
Articles critical of investment visa programs have appeared in China's state media, often highlighting fraud cases or stories of Chinese who faced trouble after going abroad. China has also tightened controls on how much money individuals and companies can move out of the country as part of broader efforts to stop the currency from further weakening.
Banks are expected to enforce more strictly the yearly limit of $50,000 that individuals are allowed to take out of the country, and will be required to report any transfers above $10,000. Still, Chinese have typically worked around such controls by moving money slowly or by using friends and family members to help them amass an overseas account.
If China, which doesn't recognize dual nationality, can't keep entrepreneurs and middle-class families from leaving, it risks endangering its economic future. That includes people like Joey, a 30-year-old Beijing resident who works for a major Chinese state-owned conglomerate. He shared his story on the condition that his last name not be used because he hadn't told his employer of his plans.
Joey and his fiancée have a two-bedroom apartment and plan to get married and have a child in China. Despite their seemingly bright future, they want to raise that child elsewhere. His friends and relatives helped him move enough money offshore to invest in the American EB-5 program.
Joey says he's seen parents and children struggling to breathe outside in China's smoggy air, and signs that China's economy is headed for deeper trouble.
"In China, you have to plan ahead," Joey said. "You cannot just leave today, whenever you want. You never know what happens next."