NICOSIA - Among the beneficiaries of Cypriot so-called Golden Visas that come with European Union passports allowing travel, banking and work in the 27-member bloc were Asia's richest woman and China's wealthy, some said to be anxious they would lose their holdings otherwise.
Yang Huiyan, with an estimated wealth of 20 billion is among more than 500 Chinese people said by Al Jazeera to have gotten the visas in a program the news site's investigative site also said sold them to criminals and corrupt, denied by the government.
Those were obtained between 2017-19, the site said, citing documents it had obtained that reportedly also held information on 2,500 others, in what The South China Morning Post said showed some of China's elite with an exit plan.
Al Jazeera, the Qatari state-owned broadcaster, did not disclose the full list of those who got visas because Cyprus bars releasing that information to protect the identities despite criticism the program has been a conduit for money laundering and for criminals to hide cash in Cypriot banks or investments.
The report cited a large cache of official documents the site said it had obtained, calling them The Cyprus Papers, a review of more than 1,400 passport applications approved by the government from 2017-19.
Cyprus’ much-criticized Golden Visa offers citizenship in exchange for an investment of 2 million euros ($2.36 million,) including the purchase of a residence worth at least 500,000 euros ($589,749.50, in addition to another 150,000 euros ($176,924.85.)
Among the more than 500 approved Chinese applicants, the broadcaster provided eight names, led by Yang Huiyan, a principal owner of Chinese property developer Country Garden, the Chinese newspaper and site said.
It is legal for Chinese citizens to apply for permanent residency or citizenship in foreign countries but they risk losing their citizenship in China, which does not recognize dual nationality.
Among the eight Chinese applicants who were named by Al Jazeera, five, including Yang, were disclosed because they could be viewed as “politically exposed persons” (PEP) for theirs or their family’s membership in the Chinese legislature and political consultative committees.
In financial regulation, a politically exposed person is one who has been entrusted with a prominent public function. A PEP generally presents a higher risk for potential involvement in bribery and corruption by virtue of their position and the influence that they may hold.
Another was Lu Wenbin, a delegate to the Chengdu People’s Congress, and also Chairman of Sichuan Troy Information Technology, a computer-networking firm based in the city. He didn't respond to the paper's calls.
While it is common for rich Chinese entrepreneurs to be members of local legislature and political consultative committees, they could be stripped of their membership if found to be holding foreign passports or not reporting foreign residency, the report added.
According to a new Chinese law that came into effect in July, “public sector employees” may be fired if they are found to have obtained foreign citizenship or even foreign permanent residence without approval.
One Chinese applicant for a Cypriot passport, Li Jiadong, was identified because he had been sanctioned by the US Department of the Treasury while another, Zhang Keqiang, was named because he had been sentenced to four years in prison after being convicted of fraud.
Al Jazeera also provided profiles of 11 Chinese applicants without naming them, including “a former head of investment banking at a China-based securities company”, “the chair of an electrical vehicle maker” and the “CIO of a Hong Kong-based pharmaceutical company”.
The site's report said Chinese are the second-largest group of visa holders on Cyprus, with Russians, some 1,000, the biggest.
The Cypriot Parliament in July beefed up the eligibility criteria for the scheme which has brought in more than 7 billion euros ($8.26 billion,) since it began, coming relatively close to matching a 10-billion euro ($11.82 billion) international bailout that propped up the economy and banks in 2013.
The program has attracted more than 7,000 investors because a passport from the Mediterranean island of Cyprus automatically grants its holder citizenship to the entire 27-member EU, allowing free travel, banking and work in the bloc.
Cyprus’ Interior Ministry said 12 foreigners named in the report received citizenship under the investment program only after being approved by Cypriot and foreign agencies tasked with vetting such applications.
The report claimed that the 12 - including four Russians, two people each from Ukraine, China and Iran, and one each from Venezuela and Vietnam - secured Cypriot passports after investments despite being under investigation for an assortment of crimes such as corruption and fraud, the ministry saying it would review the visas.