In 2011, countries like the United States received close to 90,000 permanent residents from China - a 20,000 increase from the year before.
So how will this exodus of citizens impact China? And will Beijing's incoming leader Xi Jinping be able to stem the flow of people leaving?
Presenter: Del Irani
Speaker: Dr Minglu Chen, University of Sydney's China Studies Centre
CHEN: I think there are a few possible explanations. The first one to start with is a growing global middle class has certainly increasing global mobility, so this we don't only see in China, we see elsewhere as well, especially in other developing countries like India. We also see professional middle class people moving to work in other places, such as London, New York, so on and so forth, even here in Sydney and Melbourne. And also I don't know whether you're aware of this article on New York Times about middle class Chinese people moving out of the country. They also listed a few other reasons such as environmental issues and food security, so people probably don't feel China is the best place to live in considering with environment and what they eat...
IRANI: What I was going to say you're talking about this growing middle class and you made a comparison to India, But in India what we're seeing is almost the opposite right. There's a reverse brain drain. People returning back to India. So the question I guess is what is it in China that is sort of driving this middle class to go overseas?
CHEN: Political issues might be a driving force, but I don't think it can explain the whole story and also you see the same trend in China nowadays, a lot of Chinese people they do return to seek for better opportunities in China.
I think another think to bear in mind is a foreign permanent residency doesn't really mean that these people are giving up living in China. I know some people probably do prefer to keep their Chinese passports, so that they actually can have the best of both worlds. A lot of private entrepreneurs, they probably migrate to other countries, because they could then enjoy a favourable policy back in China, apply to foreign investments, so that could be another reason.
IRANI: Tell us a bit more about the cultural perception of someone who does get the opportunity to go overseas. Is it also a status thing to sort of have that opportunity to also hold a foreign passport, but to have that foreign education?
CHEN: Yes, definitely. Educational capital is always one of the big reasons for people to identify themselves as middle class, and also considering how much you actually pay to get foreign education, that's another indicator of one's wealth and class.
IRANI: Has this so-called mass immigration of Chinese. Has it ever happened in the past?
CHEN: Yes I think so. Back in the 1980s I think, a lot of Chinese younger people was already leaving the country for further education in I think mostly back then in the United States, so these people went to graduate schools in American universities and then in the 1990s, more how you say maybe illegal in some way, certainly not so formalised migration move out of China to other countries basically small business owners seeking opportunities to enter foreign markets and later it was more middle class children coming abroad for education.
IRANI: And which of the main markets that are still seen as very attractive for Chinese people when they do go overseas?
CHEN: I reckon the Chinese always would like to have the market diversified, so it doesn't matter where they go. You like to have bids in the market, so say even... Conventionally, Chinese migrants I think go to Europe, to the United States, to Australia, to Canada, but more and more people actually go to other countries. A lot of them I think are moving to smaller economies, seeking to explore the markets there.
IRANI: OK. Let's now talk a bit about what this is going to mean for China if this continues. Is this something the Chinese Government should be concerned about that with so many Chinese people going overseas, it could ultimately affect China's economy?
CHEN: I don't think it's one of the biggest concerns of the government right now. Well the biggest concern nowadays is the power transition which is actually taking place in Beijing. But still I don't think we should just conclude it as just a one-way thing, because these people do a lot of them return back to China one way or another. Some of these professional middle class. Because of maybe cultural differences, language barrier, maybe sometimes lack of opportunity to work in the position equivalent to what they once held in China, they actually after experiencing a foreign country for awhile, they actually do return back to the country. So if that's going to make any difference to the society and the economy, somehow I guess maybe it brings in a different perspective.
IRANI: So you're saying that they go overseas, but they are returning, so it's not necessarily a loss to China per se?
CHEN: I don't think so and if they come back, one way or another, even though they don't come back maybe as Chinese citizens, they do invest back in their home country. After all, China is the fastest growing economy in the whole world.
IRANI: And this might be a trend that could continue you said as the middle class continues to grow under wealth growth, you might see more of this. Would you agree?
CHEN: Yes, definitely. It's also a part of the growing global slow mobility in the whole world. Money does flow, people flow as well, and thinking about the number itself maybe half-a-million Chinese professionals moving out of the country a year sounds like a huge number, but if you put it into the bigger background of how many Chinese people there are. Out of 1.3 billion, I don't think it's a very high percentage anyway.