Last fall, wealthy Chinese gathered at a Beijing hotel to hear a pitch by Patrick Quinn, the governor of Illinois. He wanted them to invest in a convention center project at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.
"You can't have capitalism without capital," Quinn said to the group of potential investors. "So we really are interested in encouraging people from everywhere, particularly here in China ... to consider the state of Illinois as a place to make investments."
The required minimum investment: half a million dollars.
In exchange, Chinese investors could get a green card or permanent U.S. residency in less than three years. The program, run by the U.S. government, is called "investor immigration."
Oliver Hua, who does market research for Western companies in China, attended an O'Hare investor event this month in Shanghai.
Hua said rich Chinese want green cards so they can protect their wealth as China's economy inevitably slows.
"Everybody worries. If you have money, you worry," Hua says. "Because so much assets. Tomorrow, these assets are going down."
Hua attended the Shanghai event on behalf of his brother, a wealthy real estate developer. Hua said his brother is interested in emigrating so he can transfer assets outside of China more easily.
In China's one-party system, businessmen rely on relationships with the government to prosper. Hua says if things turn sour, there is no protection.
"You get rich working with the government. If you don't work with the government, you may get nothing and you may lose everything," he says. "That probably is the most dangerous situation."
China's Nervous Wealthy
Many wealthy Chinese are anxious because, despite China's tremendous progress, the country still faces a lot of challenges. Income inequality is staggering, corruption systemic and public protests a daily occurrence.
"Many people have questions about the uncertainty surrounding China's economy, so they start looking for a second or third option," says Leo Yang, who manages a company that helps wealthy Chinese get green cards.
Last fiscal year, nearly 3,000 well-to-do Chinese applied for investor green cards in the U.S. That's up from just 270 four years ago.
A recent survey by Bank of China and Hurun Report, which tracks China's rich, found that 60 percent of Chinese millionaires have either emigrated, are in the process of doing so or are thinking about it.
A China Merchant's Bank Report found the top reason was a better education for their children. The second: protecting assets.
"I think last year, all my clients bought a hundred houses in the United States," Yang says. "Yeah — a hundred houses."
Yang says Chinese like U.S. real estate because they can own it in total and can pass homes onto their children. In China, the government controls the land. People can own houses, but they can only lease the land underneath.
"We buy the house [and] we can only use it for 70 years," he says. "In America or some other country, we can get the land forever. My clients always want to buy something forever."
Yang says most Chinese who apply for investment immigration are legitimate, but he says 5 percent to 10 percent want to move money they got through corruption.
"These people want to put money outside of China. Washing — we call it washing money," he says. "So I have some clients come to my company [and say] 'I have money. I don't have any documents.' I say no, this is illegal."
Andy Zhang is a far more typical candidate for residency. He studies automotive engineering at a technical school in Houston. Home in Shanghai on break, Zhang, 23, attended the investor event to learn more about a green card. He says a green card could help him advance in the U.S.
"It can bring me some benefits like education or ... it could make it easier to get employed," Zhang says.
He says he loves living in the U.S. and that the lifestyle is "quiet and cozy" compared with the faster pace of Shanghai. But he isn't giving up on his homeland. He hopes to work in the U.S. for BMW for several years and then probably return to China.
Another person looking for residency in another country is Leo Li, who works in the solar panel business. In the next several years, Li hopes to save enough money to qualify for investment immigration in Singapore or Canada.
One reason: more freedom.
Li explains by way of a joke: A boss is questioning a Chinese employee on why he wants to move overseas. The boss asks if he is satisfied with the pay, the work and the politicians in China. The man answers "yes." Then the boss asks why the man is still moving out.
" 'Because in other countries, I can say I'm not satisfied.' Now you understand?" Li says.
Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.