A South China Morning Post investigation into Canada's immigration programme for millionaire investors has revealed the extraordinary extent to which it has become devoted to a single outcome: Helping rich mainland Chinese settle in Vancouver.
Immigration Department data obtained by the Post suggests there was a backlog of more than 45,000 rich Chinese waiting for approval of their applications to move to British Columbia as of January last year. They are estimated to have a minimum combined wealth of C$12.9 billion (HK$90 billion).
The Chinese queue for British Columbia under the scheme - which halted new applications to deal with the backlog in 2012 - is about six times the combined annual applications from all nationalities to the investor migrant programmes run by the US, Britain and Australia. It also holds more than twice as many Chinese immigrants as have moved to the province under the federal investor visa scheme from 2008 to 2012. This suggests the queue could sustain the current pace of millionaire migration to the city for a decade to come, even if applications remain frozen.
Ottawa has vowed that the applications will be processed and few are typically rejected.
The queue of millionaires at Vancouver's doorstep has major implications in a city where housing is rated the second-least affordable in the world, behind Hong Kong, according to Demographia ’s* study of 378 cities around the world in nine major markets. Census data shows 96 per cent of all recent Chinese immigrants to British Columbia live in greater Vancouver and the proportion among the wealthy is even higher.
Kerry Starchuk is a lifelong resident of the Vancouver satellite city of Richmond, the most Chinese city in the western hemisphere and a favoured destination of wealthy mainland Chinese. She fears the potential impact of the visa queue.
"Money is taking precedence over everything," said Starchuk, 56, who has campaigned for increased English signage in Richmond. "It's taking over the social fabric, Canadian culture … You can see [the wealth disparity] in the houses that are being built - it's no longer a single-family home, it's a mansion with gates and security."
The Post's estimates are conservative, since they do not include Chinese who enter via a separate investor immigrant programme run by Quebec, 90 per cent of whose arrivals eventually end up living elsewhere in Canada.
Ottawa has pledged to process the backlog of federal applications. Under the scheme's current rules, principal applicants worth a minimum of C$1.6 million must loan the Canadian government C$800,000, interest-free, for five years. They and family members can later apply for citizenship.
The overall queue for federal investor visas included 57,308 applications lodged in Hong Kong and Beijing, according to an Immigration Department spreadsheet obtained by the Post, dated January 8, 2013. That is more than 75 per cent of the whole queue, and separate provincial arrival data indicates about 99 per cent of the applicants are mainland Chinese.
Since 2007, 80.8 per cent of Chinese applicants to the scheme have sought to live in British Columbia, the Post's data shows. If that holds true for the backlog of applicants, some 45,800 rich mainland Chinese would be bound for the province, representing 61 per cent of all applicants.
The trend appears to be growing. Chinese immigrants planning to settle in British Columbia made up 65 per cent of all applications to the popular wealth migration scheme in 2011.
The Post's documentation was provided by Vancouver immigration lawyer Richard Kurland, who obtained it via freedom-of-information requests, costly data searches and scouring of obscure data.
Previously released statistics on investor immigrant arrivals released by the British Columbia government give no hint of the sheer volume of Chinese millionaires seeking to move there. That data showed arrivals between 2005 and 2012 averaged about 4,600 per year.
Yet the Post's investigation shows the number of applications to migrate to the province has dwarfed arrivals in recent years. In 2010 alone, there were 27,535 such applications, with 92 per cent of them coming from Chinese applicants.
David Mulroney, Canada's ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012, said there was "a degree of inevitability [that most rich Chinese will seek to settle in Vancouver] given the profile that Vancouver enjoys".
"It's hard not to be impressed with Vancouver … but it would be nice to see more parts of Canada benefiting from immigration and the dynamism that that brings," Mulroney said.
"People at the end of the day are free to move and will live wherever they want, but ... we need to be ready to work more creatively with the provinces and ensure that people understand the advantages that Canada offers east of the Rocky Mountains. Vancouver is a wonderful place but there are lots of wonderful places in Canada."
The Post's data also suggests authorities may be trying to mitigate the impact of the scheme on British Columbia. From 2003 to 2010, the province consistently received around 50 per cent of all investor migrant arrivals in Canada. However, in 2011 British Columbia's share fell sharply to 36 per cent. Its share of investor landings fell again in 2012, to 28 per cent.
[*Update: This story has been updated to include a link to the latest Demographia study and to describe its scope]