ATHENS- Home for Chinese investor Jiang Rungong and his family is now Greece, has been for three years and looks like they might be there to stay, courtesy of the so-called Golden Visa program that lets rich foreigners buy residency permits that come with European Union passports while many Greeks in the Diaspora have to wait two years or more to get theirs – if they ever do.
“We chose Greece because of its cultural heritage, its history, the democracy, the freedom. We really like its atmosphere," Jiang told Agence France-Presse in a feature on the program that has been lauded by the government but blistered by critics who said it tilts toward the wealthy and people with no connection to the country, who bought their way in.
None that bothers him or his family. "Since we got the visa, we've travelled to many European countries. And every time we come back to Greece – the moment we set foot in the airport, we feel like it's home,” he said. It used to be Shanghai before the 52-year-old and his wife and son jumped at the chance to live in Greece with just about all the benefits of real citizenship – which the new New Democracy said it wants to offer outright to the rich from other countries.
His 18-year-old son, Jiang Semniao, managed to learn Greek in just two years, is attending a Greek public school, and dreams of becoming a Greek citizen not just a permanent resident, a kind of Green Card for people who aren’t citizens but want to live in the country.
Under the arrangement, non-EU citizens are given the permit in return for investing at least 250,000 euros ($275,520) in Greek real estate but reports have emerged that some of China’s wealthy are scooping up properties on the cheap with prices depressed by a 9 ½-year-long austerity crisis and turning them into short-term rentals under platforms such as Airbnb, getting even richer off their investment, driving up rents and driving out residents from neighborhoods.
Greece is not the only European country to operate such a scheme.
It’s not just the Chinese, but Russians and others with money to flaunt are buying in: the number of residence permits issued to non-EU citizens is up by 46 percent in 2018, the report on the program said, with about 5,300 issued since it began in 2013, some 3400 to Chinese buyers.
Chinese businesses are looking at investing in the country too, after Prime Minister and New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis went to the Shanghai international expo hunting them and Chinese President Xi Jinping came to Athens, where the two signed 16 deals.
Analysts said the Chinese no longer regard Greece merely as a foot in the door to the EU's free-travel Schengen zone, but actually enjoy life in their new home, a country offering sunshine, seas, islands, world-class food – very different from Chinese who find some of it exotic – and charming.
"They like to stay in Athens and the suburbs, forming little Chinatowns. They are buying blocks of flats, where all the owners are Chinese," Anny Avgouli, Migration Policy Manager for a law firm, Dedes, told AFP, the business having a special department for Golden Visas for Chinese buyers.
It’s not overnight though. "When you tell a client that a year might be needed just to submit the request...it is like you are showing him the exit," said Dedes Law Investment Manager Dorina Cobzaru about the protocol. Applications are also being held up because they are processed in the same department that handles the asylum requests of tens of thousands of migrants, who live in tents and hardship, so New Democracy wants to help them – the Chinese and Golden Visa applicants.
And already, a huge backlog has built up.
The government approved a bill October that would allow would-be investors to get around China's strict capital controls so they can use multiple bank terminal transactions to transfer the needed sum equaling $250,000. Greek Development Minister Adonis Georgiadis, who recently visited China, said the Bank of Greece had concluded that, "the use of bank terminals does not violate Greek or European law. If it is violating the Chinese law, this is a matter for China."
While the European Commission warned that Golden Visa programs in some countries, specifically Cyprus, Bulgaria and Malta, could be open to money laundering and criminal activity – Cyprus just yanked 26 – Greece is forging ahead, desperate for cash and investors to try to spur a slow recovery from a crisis that began almost a decade ago.
The Bank of Greece, said AFP, found that the program brought in 469 million euros ($516.88 million) in Chinese capital in 2018 and 443 million euros ($488.22 million) more just in the first half of 2019, with the government holding the door open wide.
Chinese investors have put more than one billion euros ($1.1 billion) in total into Greek property since the program was launched, the data showed.