Affluent Chinese have moved hundreds of billions of dollars out of the country this year, seizing on the end of Covid precautions that had almost completely sealed China’s borders for nearly three years.
They are using their savings to buy overseas apartments, stocks and insurance policies. Able to fly again to Tokyo, London and New York, Chinese travelers have bought apartments in Japan and poured money into accounts in the United States or Europe that pay higher interest than in China, where rates are low and falling.
The outbound shift of money in part indicates unease inside China about the sputtering recovery after the pandemic as well as deeper problems, like an alarming slowdown in real estate, the main storehouse of wealth for families. For some people, it is also a reaction to fears about the direction of the economy under China’s leader, Xi Jinping, who has cracked down on business and strengthened the government’s hand in many aspects of society.
In some cases, Chinese are improvising to get around China’s strict government controls on transferring money overseas. They have bought gold bars small enough to be scattered unobtrusively through carry-on luggage, as well as large stacks of foreign currency.
Real estate is an option, too. Chinese have emerged as the main buyers of Tokyo apartments costing $3 million or more, and they often pay with suitcases of cash, said Zhao Jie, the chief executive of Shenjumiaosuan, an online real estate listing service in Tokyo. “It’s really hard work to count this kind of cash.”
Before the pandemic, he said, Chinese buyers typically bought Tokyo studio apartments for $330,000 or less to rent out. Now they are buying much larger units and obtaining investment visas to relocate their families.
All told, an estimated $50 billion a month has been taken out of China this year, mainly by Chinese households and private-sector companies.
Experts said the pace of money leaving China probably did not pose an imminent risk to the country’s $17 trillion economy, in large part because exports of many of the country’s key manufactured goods are strong, returning a steady stream of cash.
A broader move by families to send their savings elsewhere could be cause for alarm. Large-scale money outflows have set off financial crises in recent decades in Latin America, Southeast Asia and even China itself, in late 2015 and early 2016.
So far, the Chinese government is indicating that it believes it has the situation under control. Money sluicing out of China has weakened the currency, the renminbi, against the dollar and other currencies. And that weakness of the renminbi has helped sustain China’s exports, which support tens of millions of Chinese jobs.
The flow of money out of China “is very manageable,” said Wang Dan, the chief economist for China in the Shanghai office of Hang Seng Bank.
Chinese policymakers are still relying on some of the limits on taking money out of the country that they imposed to stem the currency crisis eight years ago. Other restrictions imposed then, like scrutinizing exports and imports to catch disguised schemes for international money transfers, were allowed to lapse and have not been reimposed this year even as money outflows have resumed.
The movement of money out of China has roughly matched the money brought in by the country’s large trade surpluses. To the dismay of many countries elsewhere, particularly in Europe, China is exporting rising numbers of solar panels, electric cars and other advanced products even as it has replaced more imports with domestic production.
The renminbi fell in value earlier this year to its lowest level in 16 years. It hovered around 7.3 to the dollar for much of the past two months, before climbing somewhat in the last week.
The surge of money out of China that occurred eight years ago was caused by a stock market crash and a botched attempt to devalue the currency in a controlled way. China’s central bank had to spend as much as $100 billion a month of its reserves of foreign money to prop up the renminbi.
By contrast, China appears to have spent around $15 billion a month since midsummer to stabilize its currency, according to central bank data. “There’s nothing to suggest it is disorderly,” said Brad Setser, an international finance specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The scale of pressure is still much smaller than in 2015 or 2016.”
The outflows in 2015 and 2016 reflected efforts by big state-owned companies to shift large sums of money overseas. The government holds tighter political control over those companies today, and there has been no sign of a similar rush for the exits by them.
Instead, private companies and households in China have been moving money overseas. But much of people’s wealth is tied up in real estate, which cannot be easily sold.
At the same time, illegal money exchange businesses in Shanghai, Shenzhen and other cities that used to convert renminbi into dollars and other foreign currencies were closed by police raids eight years ago.
And regulators have shut almost all gambling tours to Macau, a separately administered Chinese territory. These junkets allowed wealthy Chinese to buy casino chips with renminbi, gamble some of them on baccarat or roulette and then convert the rest into dollars.
Beijing has also banned most overseas investments in hotels, office towers and other assets of little geopolitical value. The architect of China’s foreign investment curbs, Pan Gongsheng, was promoted in July to become governor of the central bank, the People’s Bank of China.
But households and companies are still managing to send money overseas.
On a recent afternoon, Bank of China and China Merchants Bank branches in the mainland were selling gold bars for 7 percent more than their affiliated banks in adjacent Hong Kong. That price difference indicates that inside China, demand is high for gold, which can be readily moved out of the country.
Another trick that mainlanders are using to get money out of China is opening bank accounts in Hong Kong and then wiring money to buy insurance products that resemble bank certificates of deposit. According to the Hong Kong Insurance Authority, the premiums for new insurance policies sold to mainlanders visiting Hong Kong were 21.3 percent higher in the first half of this year than in the first half of 2019, after nearly disappearing during the pandemic.
At a Bank of China branch on Hong Kong’s Kowloon peninsula, mainlanders were waiting on a recent morning at 7:30 to open accounts, 90 minutes before the bank was set to open. The line was so long by 8 a.m. that anyone arriving later was lucky to reach the front of the line before the end of the workday, said Valerius Luo, a Hong Kong insurance agent.
Families are then typically putting $30,000 to $50,000 in U.S. currency into insurance products, several times more than before, as they search for safe places to park their savings, Mr. Luo said. “There are still people with powerful capital,” he said, “and they want an investment package that preserves value.“
Li You and Hikari Hida contributed research.