West Africa a shortcut for rich mainland Chinese to Hong Kong residency
Thousands of mainland Chinese have permanent residency in The Gambia, a place they most likely have never visited and never will, as the African country has been unexpectedly profiting from a Hong Kong immigration scheme.
The fastest, cheapest way for a Chinese citizen to gain right of residency in Hong Kong under the Capital Investment Entrant Scheme (CIES) is to first gain permanent residency in Africa's smallest country, according to visa agencies advertising the deal.
The scheme, established in 2003, aims to attract high-value individuals to Hong Kong. An eligible applicant would have to invest at least HK$10 million in the city and have residency anywhere except four rogue states and the Chinese mainland.
For a Chinese citizen to be eligible, the person needs to be a permanent resident in another foreign country. That's where The Gambia, which does not have diplomatic ties with Beijing, comes in. The country’s loose requirements have turned it into a vehicle for wealthy Chinese to get their foot in Hong Kong's door.
It takes six 4cm-by-6cm headshots, 15 working days and roughly HK$100,000 to gain residency in western African country, according to visa agencies in Yunnan and Guangdong provinces. No visit to the country is required.
Since the beginning of the Hong Kong immigration scheme, 9,050 successful CIES entrants from the mainland have cited permanent residency in The Gambia. The figures, provided by the Immigration Department this month, are as of March 31, the latest available numbers.
Gambian residencies make up nearly 60 per cent of mainland applicants and 50 per cent of all 17,746 people who have received Hong Kong visas under the scheme.
“An individual permanent residency in The Gambia costs 80,000 yuan [HK$101,240], a family application costs 100,000 yuan,” said Chen Yunjun, a Shenzhen-based agent with Qiaoshen Emigration Consulting. “One hundred per cent get approved.”
“We started [selling] Gambian permanent residencies in Shenzhen in 2011,” she said. “Altogether, we have handled dozens so far.”
Huaien Business Consulting, in Kunming, Yunnan province, offers similar prices for a Gambian permanent residency.
“It’s 80,000 yuan per person," said a sales agent who gave only her last name as Yu.
"We can also get you a passport from Guinea-Bissau, we don’t do Gambian passports,” she said. “That would be 250,000 yuan.”
Hong Kong agencies are more expensive. Beng Seng Immigration Consultants charges US$25,000 for an individual application, according to its website. A family application, including one underage child, costs US$32,000. Every additional child costs US$1,000 more.
Dozens of visa agencies advertise Gambian residency as a way of getting into Hong Kong through CIES.
Investment in Hong Kong residency via Gambia can be profitable for wealthy mainland Chinese. They would qualify for permanent residency after seven years in the city and can request Hong Kong passports.
If they don’t spend more than 183 days on the mainland, they are also exempt from mainland taxes, David Webb, a corporate governance advocate in Hong Kong, noted in a blog post on CIES last year.
The Gambia does not recognise the People’s Republic as China’s legitimate government. It is one of four countries in Africa to maintain relations with the Taiwanese government instead.
Earlier this month, the island's ambassador to The Gambia, Samuel Chen, handed a cheque for US$1 million to Minister for Presidential Affairs Momodou Sabally to establish a Youth Development Fund. He donated US$442,000 to the Gambian national football team last week.
Despite the high number of Gambian residents recorded by Hong Kong, the African country of 1.8 million people counts only 309 mainland Chinese residents this year, said Buba Sagnia, director general of The Gambia Immigration Department, speaking from his office in the capital Banjul.
The number of Chinese residents marks a 70 per cent increase from the previous year, but it can account for only 3 per cent of those Hong Kong CIES applicants who have successfully claimed Gambian permanent residency.
Sagnia declined to comment on the discrepancy between the country's immigration statistics and those in Hong Kong. He also said he did not know how mainland Chinese citizens have been issued Gambian residency without ever coming to the country.
According to Gambian immigration law, permanent residency can be granted to people "of good character", who have spent at least five years over the last seven years in the country, of which not more than one in prison.
"Chinese citizens getting residency permits without visiting the country started in the first republic of Sir Dawda Jawara," Sagnia said, referring to the now octogenarian first prime minister and former president of the former British colony.
Jawara was deposed in a military coup in 1994 by the current president, Yahya Jammeh, who has turned The Gambia into one of the continent's worst human rights offenders. In 2008, Jammeh gave homosexuals 24 hours to leave the country or, if caught, their heads would be "cut off". His country ranked 105th in Transparency International's corruption perception index last year.
The ficitious Chinese immigrants "pay for the ID cards and the money goes to the central government," said Sagnia, who has led the immigration department since 2009. "Without economic gains the programme cannot survive."
Saikou Ceesay is a news editor with The Standard based in Serekunda, The Gambia