Though the room is already overcrowded, more listeners keep squeezing in, making it necessary to bring in additional chairs for the stragglers. Outside on the streets of Beijing, the usual Saturday afternoon shopping bustle is in full swing. But above the clamor, in the quiet of this elegant office high-rise, the audience is intent on listening to a man who can help them start a new life, one far away from China.
Li Zhaohui, 51, turns on the projector and photographs flicker across the screen behind him. Some show Li himself, head of one of China's largest agencies for emigration visas, which has more than 100 employees. Other pictures show Li's business partner in the United States. Still others show Chinese people living in an idyllic American suburb. Li has already successfully arranged for these people to leave the People's Republic of China.
Li's free and self-confident way of speaking precisely embodies the Western lifestyle that those in his audience dream of. Originally trained as a physicist, Li emigrated to Canada in 1989. In the beginning, he developed microchips in Montreal, but he says he found the job boring. Then he found his true calling: helping Chinese entrepreneurs and businesspeople escape.
Of course, Li doesn't use the term "escape." Emigration from China is legal and, with its population of 1.3 billion, the country certainly has enough people left over.
Likewise, hardly anyone in the audience is actually planning to burn every bridge with their native country. Almost everyone in the room owns companies, villas and cars in China.
Many of them, in fact, can thank China's Communist Party for their success. But along their way to the top, they've developed other needs, the kind only a person with a full stomach feels, as the Chinese saying goes. It's a type of hunger that can't be satisfied as long as the person is living under a one-party dictatorship.
These people long to live in a constitutional state that would protect them from the party's whims. And they want to enjoy their wealth in countries where it's possible to lead a healthier life than in China, which often resembles one giant factory, with the stench and dust to match.
These longings have led many people in China to pursue foreign citizenship for themselves and their families. The most popular destinations are the US and Canada, countries with a tradition of immigration. "Touzi yimin" are the magic words Li impresses tirelessly upon his listeners. Loosely translated, it means "immigration by investment."
Benefitting at Home, But Hoping to Get Out
Several months a year, Li says he travels through the US selecting suitable investment projects for his clients -- construction projects, for example, that would qualify Chinese investors and their families for long-term American visas.
Li's clients value discretion. A hyped-up sales pitch would only scare them away or push them into the arms of competitors. There are more than 800 similar agencies throughout the country, all offering their services in procuring "touzi yimin." Some simply send their advertisements as text messages.
Zhang Yongjun, 41, and his family already have one foot out the door. Zhang sits at his company's long, leather-upholstered conference table on the 31st floor of Beijing's Overseas Plaza. Outside his window, the sun's rays barely penetrate the brown smog. In just a few weeks, Zhang plans to start a new life with his wife and two daughters in Vancouver, Canada.
It took the entrepreneur four years to obtain a "Maple Leaf Card," the Canadian equivalent of the American green card. Canada's permanent resident card also offers the option of applying for citizenship after three years. To obtain it, Zhang put the equivalent of €300,000 ($400,000) in a Canadian investment fund.
"I'm taking this step for my children's sake," Zhang says. The plan is for his wife to settle permanently in Canada with the children. There, they can breathe clean air and attend schools that will teach them to be more cosmopolitan. Zhang himself will hold onto his Chinese citizenship and commute between Beijing and Vancouver since he doesn't want to lose the source of his wealth back in China.
Zhang pushes his two smartphones back and forth on the table in front of him. He brings in several million euros worth of profit each year from making software and devices for the national lottery. Although he dresses modestly, he owns property in Beijing and two other cities. His wife is a homemaker. Urban couples are legally only allowed to have one child, but for a 60,000 yuan (€7,200/$9,500) fine -- an amount it would take a migrant worker three years to earn -- Zhang bought himself the right to a second child. "The expense was worth it," he says.
In January, the family celebrated Chinese New Year abroad, as they do every year. Zhang estimates that he was on vacation for about half of the last year.
If he's doing so well, Zhang is asked, why does he even need permanent residency in far-away Canada, and why does he want to get his family citizenship there?
Zhang gazes at the ceiling of the conference room and looks as though he's already regretting having entered into a conversation on this subject. Indeed, few would-be emigrants are willing to talk publicly about their plans to move away, especially if they hope to continue earning money in China.
Traitors or the Lucky Ones?
The Global Times, a nationalist mouthpiece of the Communist Party, recently printed an online survey whose results suggest that this exodus of the wealthy sparks jealousy in many of their fellow citizens. The newspaper quoted one anonymous Internet user as saying, "Many of the people who want to emigrate are nothing more than traitors. Leave your money here if you want to emigrate."
This type of name-calling deters those thinking of getting out from talking about it publicly. Zhang, too, offers only a vague hint as to why he wants to give himself and his family this second leg to stand on in Canada. "In an environment where power determines everything, there's ultimately no clear standard, no feeling of security," he says.
In recent years, China's Communist Party has liberated hundreds of millions of people from poverty. With the slogan "one world, one dream" China celebrated not only the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, but also its rapid ascent to superpower status. Amid the muddle of the global financial crisis, some Western politicians and businesspeople went so far as to hail the supposed superiority of an authoritarian system.
In reality, though, the children of those who have prospered in China's economic revolution also dream of Western freedoms. Latent cynicism toward the party has spread well beyond the wealthy, becoming prevalent among the emerging middle class, as well.
Anxious to Get the Whole Family Out
For a 36-year-old man we will call Wang Qiang, it's the beginning of one of his last days working in Beijing. He also plans to permanently emigrate to Canada with his whole family, in this case to Quebec.
This morning, Wang once again battled his way through city traffic for an hour and an half. Now he's at work in a skyscraper belonging to a state-owned telephone company. Wang is part of the upper management, is popular among colleagues and essentially has his job for life. Yet, he and his wife think about nothing but how they can get away from here -- and as soon as possible.
It started, Wang says, when his daughter was born and he held her tiny hand for the first time. "I suddenly realized that under no circumstances did I want to raise her in China," he recalls.
Soon, Wang plans to apply for immigration at the Canadian Embassy. He's kept quiet about his intentions so far at work, but says that each day only strengthens his resolve.
Wang tells of a colleague who bragged about having sent his child to an expensive elite school. "Where's the fairness in that?" Wang asks. "Without connections, children don't have a chance in China's education system."
Wang glances around to see if any of his colleagues are nearby. For the time being, he needs to remain cautious, but he's finding it increasingly difficult to keep his dissatisfaction to himself. Each day, his life strikes him as more pointless than the day before. As an example, he mentions elections for the local People's Congress, a farce held by Beijing over the past few months in a storm of propaganda. "They let us vote," Wang explains, "but we don't know a single one of the candidates."
Wang says that several of his friends have already emigrated to Canada and that "None of them has tried to talk me out of my plan." He eventually wants to bring his parents to Canada, as well, so they can benefit from a Western welfare system.
Party Leaders and the American Dream
Li, the emigration coordinator, is finished with his seminar for investors and sitting contentedly on a red-brown leather couch in his office. "Every time the media reports something on successful emigrants, we get even more requests," he says.
Even many Communist Party functionaries send their children to study abroad. Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, for example, who is tapped to become the country's next leader and visited Washington last week , has a daughter studying at Harvard University. Another example is Bo Xilai, a prominent politician and party head for Chongqing, a major city in southwest China. Bo may drive his citizens into the city's parks in the mornings to sing revolutionary songs, but his son, Guagua, attends Harvard.
The fact that so many leading party members dream the American dream for their children has given rise to a new joke in China: It's a good thing, people say, that parents' days at elite universities such as Harvard, Yale and Princeton don't coincide with the Chinese Communist Party convention. If they did, half the seats in the Great Hall of the People would be left empty.