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China citizenship issue more than storm in a teacup
Publication Date : 02-12-2012
Three years ago, there was a public outcry after people found that more than 20 Chinese actors who possessed foreign passports had acted in an all-star blockbuster made to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.
Although the "expatriates" were relegated to playing minor, non-communist characters' roles in the film, the line-up smacked of black humour because they portrayed the roles of some of China's most ardent and respected patriots. Their self-deprecating explanations about their decisions to renounce Chinese citizenships only succeeded in generating more sarcasm and scorn.
People might, however, have shrugged off such a controversy as a storm in a teacup.
In comparison, the ongoing public uproar over the citizenship of a rich, high-profile businesswoman deserves more serious attention because it reveals a growing resentment against and suspicion of the rich and powerful fleeing China.
It all started when a Beijing court recently subpoenaed Zhang Lan, founder of a chain of 70 restaurants serving Sichuan cuisine, in connection with a civil lawsuit. Law officials were shocked to realise she was nowhere to be found and might have already taken up citizenship in another country.
But what has really touched a raw nerve among Chinese is that Zhang's departure symbolises a seemingly irreversible flight of capital and the elite, even when the Chinese economy continues to boom.
A widely reported survey, conducted by the Bank of China and wealth researcher Hurun Report, has found more than half of China's millionaires are either considering emigrating or are already in the application process to do so. Zhang has just provided a prominent case in point.
Zhang accumulated a personal wealth estimated at billions of dollars - from her restaurant business after she returned from Canada two decades ago. She's known for publicly displaying her patriotism and lavishing gratitude on China for giving her the opportunity to succeed.
In one video clip that went viral on the Internet, she said that she had found it difficult to swear her oath to Canada where she had studied and worked for a couple of years. "I think I will be loyal to my native country forever, because I'm a Chinese," she said, to a loud applause from the audience.
She has, however, chosen to keep mum about why and where she is emigrating, while her claims of loyalty to the nation have become the butt of jokes on the Internet.
Another hot issue is Zhang's dual role in business and politics. As chairman of the South Beauty group, Zhang acted as a member of a people's political consultative conference in a Beijing district, which aroused people's curiosity about how she could hold on to her position as a political adviser even after cancelling her local hukou (household registration). Earlier this year, a top official from the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference indicated that foreigners couldn't become its members. Zhang reportedly applied to relinquish her membership only after the revelation by the court.
The legitimacy of Zhang's official capacity, by extension, has also prompted an appeal for transparency about other holders of public office. The domestic media have reported that "some corrupt officials have secretly acquired foreign nationalities or dual nationalities through various connections".
"In view of the current situation, disclosure of personal information should start with officials which, if successfully implemented, will put greater pressure on other Chinese VIPs," said a commentary in a Chinese newspaper. It added that the media's reporting on personal information related to public interests should not be interfered with, because the public is keen to know the facts and the media are enthusiastic about such stories.
Chinese people's patience is wearing thin and it will not bode well for the country if the exodus cannot be reversed in the near future, pundits say.
The author is editor-at-large of China Daily