Welcome or not?

Chinese ponder mixed messages from Madrid

Welcome or not?

Buy a flat, get Spanish residency

Asked what they know about Xibanya, most Chinese will give you a blank stare. At best, they might mention the flamenco or matadors. But deeper knowledge about Spain is not particularly extensive in China, where reporting about the Iberian country tends to be thin.

In the last two months, some of that has changed, starting with Madrid’s arrest of the successful businessman Gao Ping in October. He is Spain’s most prominent Chinese immigrant (see WiC170).

The coverage was largely negative, with several of China’s media outlets suggesting that the Spanish swoop – which picked up 80 other Chinese suspected of involvement in money-laundering and gangs – was discriminatory.

This week Spain was in the news again and once more immigration was a factor. But this time the Spanish look to be taking a more welcoming attitude to Chinese arrivals. That’s because the Madrid government has announced a new plan to boost the housing market, offering Chinese buyers residency if they spend more than €160,000 ($207,000) on a property.

The Chinese press has taken a sceptical tone. “This may look like a free lunch but common sense tells us nothing is ever free and this is no exception,” wrote the Guangzhou Daily.

“We need to be clear that the Spanish government is introducing the so-called ‘cash for citizenship’ policy with the core objective of sucking up foreign gold,” it added.

The policy was proposed by the Trade Minister Jaime Garcia-Legaz and has yet to be drafted.

Spain has over 700,000 unsold properties on the market as a result of a housing boom that ended abruptly in 2008. The average nationwide property price stands at €160,000 – the same amount as the residency deal.

It looks a low bar: Ireland and Portugal give residency to those that buy properties worth more than €500,000 and €400,000 respectively, while Hungary offers the right of abode to those willing to spend more than €250,000 on special government bonds.

Garcia-Legaz said Spain would target wealthy citizens from countries like China and Russia once the scheme was launched.

The weibo world lit up at the idea, with netizens turning quickly to Spanish real estate websites to compare prices. “I can get a whole house for the price of my small flat in Beijing,” enthused one user.

“ How well they live there! A villa, fresh air and nature all for €250,000,” gushed another.

But others had reservations following the police raid – dubbed Operation Emperor – on Gao Ping and other Chinese businessmen last month. “A couple of days ago they raided Chinese merchants like we are terrorists,” pointed out one weibo user.

Current Chinese residents of Spain were far from pleased by the raid. In Madrid, Chinese traders closing their doors for a day of protest.

This week China sent a ministerial delegation to Spain to look more closely at the case, and to defend its nationals as law abiding citizens.

“We need proof to convince the Chinese living in China that in Spain there is no Chinaphobia,” Yang Guangyu, the head of the delegation said.

The Global Times seemed to deny even the possibility that any of the Chinese arrested could be guilty, saying it was their “hard work and thrift” that had allowed them “to acquire a large amount of wealth in a short period of time”.

“China and Chinese immigrants can be easy scapegoats for local politicians seeking to shift the focus of domestic pain,” the newspaper complained.

Other editorials warned Chinese citizens against bailing Spain out of its property crisis, as even with residency rights they would still be treated like “second class citizens”.

Chinese internet users were not deterred however: “I’ve just planned out the rest of my life, “ wrote one. “Sell the flat in Beijing to buy a property in Spain, and use the extra money to open a Chinese pastry shop.”

But one issue is still unclear: for those newcomers planning to buy a flat in hip Barcelona, would they keep their residency if the Catalans vote to become independent from Spain? Over to you, Signor Garcia-Legaz…

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