Even though countries in South Europe have been gaining popularity among the Chinese investors, it is the United Kingdom which has emerged as the main destination for Chinese investment ever since the start of the debt crisis in 2012.
It has been reported that China has invested twice as much into the UK since the beginning of 2012 compared to what they did in the last seven years. According to some estimates, this has been more than the combined total of Chinese investment in the county in the past three decades.
According to Nat Wei, a British peer of Chinese heritage, the rise of Chinese investment into the UK “is not on the same scale as southern Europe but here it’s more business as usual than a fire sale.” In 2012 the UK overtook France and became the top destination in Europe for attracting Chinese direct foreign investment, as per data from UK Treasury figures and the Heritage Foundation.
Today China’s companies hold stakes in the North Sea oil, in Manchester and London Heathrow airports, and in cereal company maker Weetabix. China is also planning to invest in the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant, which is projected to generate 7% of the electricity in the UK by the time it is completed in 2023. One of the groups planning to invest in this nuclear plant is the China National Nuclear Corporation, which is a state-owned company that has developed China’s nuclear arsenal.
The British government is happy about the increasing flow of Chinese investment. “I challenge you to think of any other country in the west where such a collaboration would be possible,” said Chancellor George Osborne.
However certain politicians are skeptical about these economic ties with China, and are worried about opening critical energy and telecommunications sectors to China. In fact the UK government was criticized by the Parliament’s intelligence committee last year for not properly managing the risk of potential security breaches or espionage that is posed by equipment supplied by Chinese telecom company Huawei to BT and other British telecoms companies.
The US on the other hand has kept Huawei out of its telecoms equipment market due to security concerns, even though Huawei has repeatedly denied any links with the Chinese government.
However aside from such big investments, the Chinese businessmen and investors have generally found it difficult to obtain the necessary visa in the UK to carry on business or investment in the country. “If you can’t even get people into the country, it doesn’t send a good signal,” says a UK businessman with ties to Chinese investors.
According to Lord Wei, “A lot of countries in the world have a much more sophisticated points system around skills. It’s not something that Chinese companies will publicly talk about. People vote with their feet. You notice it when you see HQs are elsewhere. We have to fight for this: the effects will be felt for decades.”
The Tier 1 investor visa being offered by the UK has recently gained in popularity among the wealthy Chinese investors. This visa allows permanent residence in the UK in exchange for investments of £1m, £5m or £10m.
The UK’s Tier 1 investor visa program differs significantly from the ‘golden visa’ programs of other European countries like Malta, Cyprus and Portugal. The UK only allows investors to use up to a quarter of their investment to buy property in order to avoid real estate speculation. The remaining investment can be made in the UK companies or bonds but not in a business related to property development.
The program provides visa to applicants after successful investment and allows them to apply for permanent residence after two years. Since this program was started in 2008, about 2,000 visas have been issued, a quarter of which have been granted to Chinese applicants making them the largest single recipient group.
Since the Tier 1 visa rules allow investments to be made as a loan to the investor’s own business, the UK government has been concerned that they do not therefore bring enough benefits for the British economy.
The UK Home Secretary, Theresa May, recently turned down a suggestion from her immigration advisers that these visas should be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Rather there are reports that May plans to announce an increase of minimum investment to £2m, along with new restrictions on the types of investment that would qualify for the program.
“The biggest group of people planning to move out from China to overseas are ‘middle class business people,” says Henry Sun, chairman of the UK subsidiary of Chinese-owned NVC Lighting. Sun believes the proposed changes will have significant impact.
The Chinese investors opting for the Tier 1 visa are quite involved in the operations of their family-run businesses and are not willing to invest all of their life savings overseas.
Since other European countries, for instance Malta, offer more flexible options in their ‘golden visa’ programs, it is possible that in the coming years these countries will overtake the UK as the most popular destination for Chinese investment.