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AP Exclusive: Placing a value – $24 billion – on ‘golden visas’

Video of U.S. President Donald Trump is displayed as workers wait for potential investors during an event promoting EB-5 investment in a Kushner Companies development, at a hotel in Shanghai, China, May 7, 2017. The real estate investment opportunity, pitched by the sister of Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is part of a controversial American visa program that has proven irresistible to tens of thousands of Chinese. (AP Photo)

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They’re called “golden visas” – legal permission for non-citizens to reside in the U.S. or other countries in exchange for investment. But how much are such investments worth, and who is making them?

These were questions that AP’s Nomaan Merchant set out to answer, encouraged by Greater China news director Gillian Wong.

After months of searching out data from 20-plus countries, analyzing it and interviewing investors, Merchant could report that more than 100,000 Chinese have poured $24 billion in the last decade into “golden visa” programs across the world,and notably in the U.S. – an exclusive AP analysis that earns the Beat of the Week.

Merchant,part of the AP’s Texas staff and currently based in Houston,had the “fantastic” opportunity to fill in for six months for a staffer on leave from the Beijing bureau. Even before his arrival, Wong said she wanted to find out what were the top investment migration programs that Chinese were using. Merchant’s data collection experience on a prior project might help.

Soon after landing in China, Merchant started getting text message ads for the U.S. EB-5 program and seeing ads for other countries.

“Quickly after I landed in China in August,I started getting text message ads for the U.S. EB-5 program and seeing ads for other countries,and I soon realized how big a deal ‘golden visa’ programs are in China,” he said.

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Visitors to the Invest in America Summit talk with exhibitors at a hotel in Beijing, May 7, 2017. At least two dozen countries offer a new home to people willing to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in a business, real estate or government bonds. And there’s no bigger market for many of them than China. – AP PHOTO / ANDY WONG

He would discover that China’s investors in these visas are part of a wave characterized not by poverty,persecution or war, but by people with steady jobs and homes who are pursuing happiness that’s eluded them in their homeland.

He called or emailed authorities from Australia to Spain to ask for the numbers of visa investors in their countries.

First,seeking raw material,he called or emailed authorities from Australia to Spain to ask for the numbers of Chinese and total visa investors in their countries. Documents arrived but weren’t always easy to decipher at first,including some in Latvian. But with help from Larry Fenn,New York-based AP data specialist,he reached a final accounting for each of their programs,which the officials verified.

Next came interviews with about a dozen investors in several cities. Here Merchant,who does not speak Chinese,got help from AP researchers Yu Bing,Fu Ting and Liu Zheng,who asked his questions,transcribed interviews and went back for follow-ups.

The investors spoke of their worries about rising housing costs and smog,and their desire for an alternative to China’s pressure-filled schooling for their children. For one woman, getting a prized “green card” would be a pathway for a less stressful education for her 9-year-old son,who “has a lot of homework to do every day, but I don’t think he has learned a lot from school.”

A professor in Beijing explained: “Middle-class investors’ choosing to leave shows that their confidence in their future, their dreams and the regime in China is fading.”

The story,which won wide play and topped AP Mobile,got a boost from news that the sister of Jared Kushner,President Donald Trump’s son-in-law,promoted the U.S. EB-5 program to Beijing investors for a New Jersey building project.

Merchant said Wong shepherded the golden visa story from start to finish. “After I left China in February,there was hardly a day that Gill wasn’t emailing me (often during my work day and in the middle of the night for her),adding great context to the story,or mobilizing resources there to do interviews or attend events.”

For untangling a dense web of bureaucratic data to reveal an important story about economics and culture, Merchant and Wong share this week’s $500 prize.

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