Yahya Jammeh: How Wealthy Chinese Are Escaping to Hong Kong, Courtesy Of a West African Dictator

The People's Republic of China and the Gambia are continents apart and share few commonalities. The small West African coastline nation does not even hold diplomatic ties with China, preferring to maintain relations with Taiwan instead. Out of the Gambia's 1.7 million residents, only 309 of them are China mainlanders, according to the Gambia Immigration Department.

However, despite the physical and ambassadorial distance, over 9,000 wealthy Chinese businessmen and their families since 2003 have applied and been granted permanent resident status in the Gambia, with most of them having never set foot in the West African nation. For whatever reason, the Gambia has somehow become the setting for a loophole to gain a Hong Kong resident permit in the cheapest and most efficient way possible.

Beijing has strict emigration policies on its citizens even if it is just to Hong Kong, and the island has just as (if not more so) stringent guidelines for mainlanders to gain Hong Kong residence permits. One way to gain residence in the port city is to come in as a Hong Kong capital investor — this includes investing $1.25 million U.S. dollars into Hong Kong "investments among permissible assets," as well as already holding permanent residence in another country other than China.

All it takes is six 4cm-by-6cm head shots, 15 business days, approximately $12,900 U.S. dollars, a specialized visa agency, and no visits to the African nation whatsoever to gain permanent residency in the Gambia. Agencies will give discounts for family applications.

Officially, the Gambian immigration law states that permanent residency will only be granted to individuals who have spent at least five of the last seven years in the country. When asked how the Chinese were obtaining permanent resident permits, the director general of the Gambia Immigration Department, Buba Sagnia, said he did not know, nor could he explain the 9,000 number of allotted permits — despite there only being 309 Chinese residents currently living there.

The Chinese are benefiting from this African loophole, but where does all this money go? And at what cost? After all, schemes by definition are not regarded as illicit and deceitful for no reason.

The Gambia, and Who's Benefiting: 

According to Sagnia, all that money "goes to central government." President Yahya Jammeh heads the Gambia's central government, and his political strategy is authoritarian and inhumane.

Fraud clouds over national elections — of which Jammeh has won every single time since 1996. The Gambian press is notoriously suppressed, and journalists who are mildly critical of Jammeh's regime are frequently harassed, imprisoned, and even assassinated. As of 2013, the Gambia ranked 165 out of 186 in the Human Development Index, placing them in the lower half of third and lowest tier.

In May 2008, Jammeh gave a nationwide ultimatum to all Gambian homosexuals to leave the country or he would "cut off the head" of any gay or lesbian found within national borders.

At a rally on July 2010, Jammeh said, "Whether you like it or not, no coup will end my government, no elections can end my government. By God's grace I will rule this country as long as I wish and choose someone to replace me."

Two months after the rally, a headline of the Gambia's Daily Observer claimed that Jammeh received four awards, including one from President Barack Obama and another from the state of Nebraska. The former, as a White House spokesman confirmed days later, was a false account. The latter was a ceremonial Nebraskan Admiralship from the fictitious "navy" of landlocked Nebraska. According to the state's spokeswoman, the Nebraskan state government "routinely processes thousands of admiralship requests annually" as humorous distinctions.

In his 2013 New Year's address, he announced that he would be offering his own homemade remedy of boiled herbs to HIV/AIDS patients at a 1,111-bed hospital in the Gambia. Both the World Health Organization and the United Nations have condemned his proclamation as irresponsible for giving false hope, and medically dangerous as his herbal treatment calls for patients to stop taking their anti-retroviral drugs.

The Unbeknownst Consequences:

Hong Kong is an appealing island for Chinese mainlanders. As one of the world's leading financial centers, the island offers many investment opportunities and international business relations. Hong Kong residency papers often garner visa-free travel benefits that do not come with PRP passports. Educationally, Hong Kong's state education programs are free and world-class, ranking the third best in the developed world and its international school students placing first in reading, math, and science literacy. Mainlanders also flock to the island for its better-quality health care and as a strategy to sidestep the one-child only policy.

Those benefits are comfortably pleasant, but they are not irreplaceable or impossible to obtain elsewhere. China itself is emerging as global financial power — and it is not all quarantined in the lone Hong Kong. Its educational system is superior, but that is not novel to that island either. In fact, two of the top ten international schools in the world, according to Expats Village, are in Beijing and Shanghai. And the kind of businessmen and families that can afford to pay tens of thousands of dollars for fake Gambian identification papers can most certainly afford health care abroad and live comfortably — with or without Hong Kong permanent residency.

By gaining Hong Kong residency through the Gambia, the Chinese are therein supporting a despotic ruler. With Jammeh's history of making up awards for himself, it seems ironically fitting for the Gambia to be the buffer nation for false permanent residency permits. But it doesn't have to be. The aforementioned perks are nice, but are they worth it if it means financially sponsoring human rights violations and an abusive regime? 

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Angel Au-Yeung

Angel Au-Yeung holds a B.S. in Cognitive Neuroscience from UC San Diego and is currently an Associate Editor for LinkedIn. Born in Hong Kong and raised in San Francisco, she is fascinated by the world and the people that make it. Her day-to-day goals include being her own think tank and making sure she has a great dinner.

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