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Seeking a passport to a new life

By Jennifer Pak
BBC News, Beijing

Gong Li at a citizenship ceremony in Singapore (08/11/08)
Many Chinese people were outraged by Gong Li's decision

One of China's most famous actresses has been accused of being unpatriotic after becoming a Singaporean citizen.

Some say Gong Li, star of the film Memoirs of a Geisha, has turned her back on her Chinese fans.

But the actress is not the only Chinese citizen to seek another country's passport.

They do it for convenience, to improve job prospects and as a safety net.

Despite China's increasing economic and political power, a Chinese passport is still seen as restrictive by many of its citizens.

Gong Li, whose husband is from Singapore, is just one of many film stars who have given up their Chinese passport.

According to news reports, Hong Kong film star Jet Li holds US citizenship.

And Zhang Ziyi, the star of kung fu movie Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, holds a Hong Kong residency card.

Gong Li's passport switch led to a commentary in the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper.

"We should think about why our laws, our system and cultural society have churned out so many of these so-called 'super citizens', people who live in China but their hearts are set on being a citizen in another country," it said.

'Still Chinese'

Kong Ting, who was born in China but is now a US citizen, is not surprised that Gong Li switched to a Singaporean passport.

Wuhao and Kong Ting
I feel safer when I come back to China and I say certain things that the Chinese government doesn't like
Kong Ting
"A lot of times when Chinese do things it's for practical reasons, to make life easier and for more financial gain," she said

Ms Kong, 36, has lived in the US for 15 years, and became an American citizen two years ago to make travelling to other countries easier.

"I don't think getting a US citizenship makes me feel any less Chinese," she said.

With the exception of a few dozen south-east Asian and African countries, Chinese passport holders need to apply for visas in advance to go abroad which are sometimes difficult to get.

Most ordinary Chinese can only go abroad by joining tour groups, sometimes at very high costs.

Some tour companies reportedly charge up to 50,000 yuan ($7,300:4,880) as a deposit to go to Japan.

This acts as a deterrent for people who are thinking of not returning to China after the trip.

Another reason Ms Kong wanted an American passport was for security reasons.

"Maybe I feel safer when I come back to China and I say certain things that the Chinese government doesn't like," she said. "They can't really hold it against me."

Tax reasons

Wu Hao, from Sichuan Province, has studied and worked in the US, and soon hopes to get his hands on a US passport.

Passports
A new passport can bring new freedoms for former Chinese citizens
He said as a student, getting a US passport was the ultimate goal in life.

"For my generation and older, we wanted a foreign passport so bad," said the 36-year-old.

"We grew up in an environment when China was not secure, when things changed so fast in China. Everyone just wanted to get out as soon as we could back in those days," he said.

Mr Wu moved back to China four years ago.

He will be eligible for an American passport in a few years time, but a small part of him hesitates about trading in his Chinese passport.

"I wonder if I really want to abandon my Chinese identity. I don't know," he added.

Mr Wu said many of his friends are much more practical about citizenship.

"I have a friend who recently gave up his American green card status in order not to pay US tax," said Mr Wu.

"A lot of Chinese friends I know who make a decent or relatively high salary in China, they're considering alternatives, trying to evade tax," he said.

Mr Wu said people who were outraged by Gong Li's switch to Singaporean citizenship are blowing it out of proportion.

"If they got the chance [to get a foreign passport] they would immediately jump on it."



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