Xi’s crackdowns drive Chinese billionaires to booming Singapore
published : 15 Nov 2022 at 12:06
One of the hottest wine bars for Chinese billionaires isn’t atop a Shanghai office tower or within a Beijing courtyard house. It’s in a modest black-and-white bungalow next to a six-lane thruway in the heart of Singapore.
After stepping past the reception desk with its wall of wine bottles, visitors enter a two-story den of rattan-backed chairs and tables where bankers and crypto-entrepreneurs gather. The truly connected are escorted down a garden path, past recreations of Terracotta Warriors to a pavilion with statues of cranes standing on turtles, symbols of longevity in Chinese culture.
For the newly arrived rich, the private lounge within a lounge at Circle 33 on Scotts Road has become a rite of passage, where members from China, Singapore and Malaysia discuss deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars well past 2am over bottles of Bordeaux, Cuban cigars and poker, according to people familiar with the club.
The popularity of Circle 33, grown with the help of Dianping.com co-founder Zhang Tao, is the latest sign that China’s super rich are decamping to other countries and bringing their money with them. For some, it’s a temporary move to avoid Covid restrictions and potentially higher taxes. For others, it’s permanent.
The exodus of wealth is poised to accelerate after last month’s Party Congress in which President Xi Jinping further tightened his grip on the economy. Xi’s drive for “common prosperity” means entrepreneurs -- who once embraced Deng Xiaoping’s maxim that to get rich is glorious -- are flocking to more welcoming places like Singapore.
“It’s really a downward slope for the private sector in China and it’s just a question of how steep,” said Drew Thompson, a visiting senior research fellow at National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. “That will accelerate efforts to migrate and shelter wealth abroad.”
The shift by some of Asia’s wealthiest families to Singapore is hardly new. The city-state’s reputation as a low-tax bastion of safety and stability has long made it a regional hub for the rich, from Thailand to Indonesia. Its attraction for wealthy Chinese has ramped up since the 2019 protests in Hong Kong made that city less appealing, and gathered steam following this year’s Covid lockdowns.
“Significant money is flowing into Singapore” from Greater China, said Cheah Cheng Hye, co-founder of Value Partners Group, a Hong Kong money manager that’s adding staff in the city-state. “Family offices are expanding and people see Singapore as a safe haven for their money.”
Singapore doesn’t provide detailed statistics about where its wealthy immigrants come from. But the explosive rise in family offices are symptomatic of the attraction for Chinese tycoons. The number of these offices almost doubled to about 700 at the end of 2021 from the previous year. While China’s wealthy aren’t the only drivers of the growth, some service providers say they are by far the largest market.
Michael Marquardt, whose firm IQ-EQ Asia helps set up family offices, said the number of inquiries from Chinese clients jumped about 25% to 50% just before and after the Party Congress. Vikna Rajah, head of tax and trust at law firm Rajah and Tann Singapore LLP, said in June that more than 30% of the clients he’s helped apply for family office tax exemptions are from Greater China, including Hong Kong.
“There’s definitely been an increase in interest,” Marquardt said. “Entrepreneurs who have done well and taken their companies public are interested in parking their international wealth in a place like Singapore.”
Xi’s push to consolidate his leadership by promoting allies who’ve taken a tough stance against the private sector -- along with the prospect of new inheritance taxes -- have pushed some people to completely sever ties with their country.
Chen, a financial services provider who only wanted his last name used, has lost all hope of liberal reforms in China. He recently cancelled his Beijing “Hukou” -- a coveted household registration that ensures crucial services from schooling to health care -- after getting a Hong Kong passport. Two other professionals with Hong Kong permanent residencies told Bloomberg they’d done the same within weeks.
The influx is showing up in the financial data. According to figures released last month by the Monetary Authority of Singapore, the value of assets across the money management industry rose by 16% in 2021 to S$5.4 trillion ($3.9 trillion). The single-largest portion came from Asia-Pacific sources, excluding Singapore.
When asked by Bloomberg Television if he expects accelerated capital outflows following the recent Party Congress, MAS Managing Director Ravi Menon said that while there has been money flowing from China in recent years, it’s too early to tell if more will come.
While the super-rich have often used Singapore as a base for business, many Chinese families are now opting to live there. That shift has shown up in a myriad ways, from rising luxury car sales to sky-rocketing prices for mansions and golf memberships.
Home prices soared about 8% in the first nine months of the year, even as property markets from Sydney to Toronto tumbled. Rents are also jumping, as more potential buyers are priced out of the market and housing supplies tighten.
Sales of luxury cars coveted by wealthy Chinese are humming. Some 87 Bentleys and 78 Rolls Royces were registered this year in Singapore, up 26% and 90% respectively compared with all of 2019. These cars frequently cost well over $1 million.
Golf fees are soaring as new arrivals look to polish their swings while making a solid investment. The cost for an expat membership at the private Sentosa Club overlooking the Singapore Strait has more than doubled to S$880,000 since the end of 2019, according to figures from Singolf Services Pte, a brokerage. That easily tops an investment in Chinese stocks, which have dropped about 2% over that time.
“We see a huge demand that we didn’t see before the pandemic” Madeline Choo, manager of Active Golf Services Pte. “They need to buy a membership because they intend to stay in Singapore for very long.”
The list of entrepreneurs establishing themselves in Singapore reads like a Who’s Who of Chinese startups circa 2018. Zhang Yiming, founder of TikTok’s ByteDance Ltd, frequently travels there, according to several people who have met with him. Crypto mogul Jihan Wu bought a storage vault dubbed Asia’s Fort Knox near the Changi Airport in September. And VIPKid founder Cindy Mi, whose company was a venture capital darling until Beijing cracked down on online education, is also a regular visitor, according to two people familiar with the matter.
The recent arrivals add to the list of established Chinese executives who already call Singapore home. Sean Shi, co-founder of hotpot maker Haidilao International Holding Ltd, paid S$50 million for a so-called good class bungalow in September, according to local media. Fosun International Ltd co-founder Liang Xinjun has set up a family office.
Chinese are now the country’s biggest foreign buyers of condos, scooping up 932 units in the first eight months of 2022 - more than twice the amount bought by Malaysians, according to industry watcher OrangeTee & Tie Pte.
The influx has certainly enlivened Alice Hung’s social life. The philanthropist and family office owner decided to move to Singapore from Hong Kong in 2019 after making much of her money in China from medical devices and property. Over the past year, the number of friends and peers following her from Greater China has surged.
“I probably have 20 billionaire friends based in Singapore now,” she said, adding that most of them are recent arrivals. “My God, for the last 10 months I’ve been asked to go out every single night - I’m very selective because I’m exhausted.”
While some Chinese find Singapore a little more staid than Hong Kong, they will continue to flock to the city-state, according to NGC Ventures Founding Partner Tony Gu, who most recently moved to Singapore in 2018. Gu’s acquaintances from Greater China now living in Singapore has risen to several hundred from about 20 four years ago.
“More will be coming to Singapore, 100%,” he said of Chinese entrepreneurs, over a 21-year-old whiskey at 35a Scotts - a club inside a black-and-white bungalow near Circle 33. “The theme of our era is Chinese entrepreneurs going overseas” and Singapore offers the best foothold.
Gu said the moves don’t necessarily represent a lasting repudiation of China or Hong Kong, nor a commentary on its politics. The latter remains a valuable business hub and Gu plans to visit his hometown and do business in China when pandemic restrictions are eased. Chinese markets have soared in recent days after the government announced plans to relax some Covid rules and issued sweeping directives to shore up the property sector.
It’s not clear whether Xi will seek to halt the outflow of people and capital. Investment migration consultancy Henley & Partners estimates a cohort of 10,000 high-net-worth residents are seeking to pull $48 billion from China this year — the second-largest wealth and people outflow for a country after Russia.
Thompson said that Beijing has historically been indifferent to those who move abroad -- as long as they fly under the radar and avoid criticising the Communist Party. What’s more, Singapore is less likely to harbour vocal dissidents than its Western peers, he said.
All that suggests the flow of Chinese money into Singapore is unlikely to stop, said Gary Rieschel, founding managing partner of Qiming Venture Partners, a China-focused venture capital firm that’s raised $9.4 billion.
“Hong Kong was and Singapore now is the regional tax haven of choice,” he said. “This is Exodus on steroids with Xi as the unintended Moses.”