TAIPEI Mainland Chinese are skirting rules aimed at limiting their purchases of property in Taiwan, stirring anger among local home buyers and fuelling worries over Beijing's creeping influence over an island that it views as a renegade province.
While Chinese money has boosted property markets across the world - from Sydney and London to Vancouver - mainland capital flows into the self-ruled island are an especially emotive issue for many Taiwanese. The government in Taipei has been criticized by some for not being more restrictive on mainland ownership of Taiwanese real estate.
Fuelling fears of further encroachment by Beijing is a review of a cross-strait trade deal next month. In March, hundreds of students occupied Taiwan's legislature for more than three weeks to protest against the trade pact.
Relations between Beijing and the island have see-sawed between aggression, attempts at rapprochement and occasional snubs ever since Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists lost a civil war to Mao Zedong's Communist forces in 1949 and fled to Taiwan. Six decades later, dealings with the mainland are still widely viewed with mistrust and suspicion, especially when they involve mainland acquisitions of assets on Taiwan.
A senior official of Taiwan's interior ministry, Shih Ming-shih, told Reuters that the government had imposed measures to limit Chinese from buying too many homes as such a move "would jeopardize our national security or economic development".
"If people do not apply legally, there is no way we can stop that, but they have to bear the risk of losing the properties they bought," Shih said in a warning to would-be violators.
Some Taiwanese feel priced out of the property market at a time when the government of China-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou is trying to convince them of the advantages of closer economic integration with the mainland through the cross-strait trade pact.
"If mainlanders are in the market we don't even have a chance. What if, in the end, those who live in Taiwan aren't Taiwanese but Chinese?" said Melissa Hu, a 40-year-old public servant in Taipei.
Some property agents said loopholes that allow mainland buyers to get around restrictions make it difficult for Taiwan to take meaningful action.
"It's impossible for the Taiwan government to fix it. The best it can do is to set up a limit on how many houses Chinese can buy each year," said Stanley Su, research and development manager at Sinyi Realty Co in Taipei. "That way, it can at least avoid a situation where massive inflows of Chinese investment go to Taiwan's property market."
PROPERTY PRICES SURGE
Money from mainland China has helped drive home prices in Taipei up almost 200 percent in the past decade, according to property agents.
Taiwan imposes strict rules on Chinese home buyers including restrictions on quick re-sales and background checks to exclude people with links to the Communist Party and People's Liberation Army.
But many mainland investors have found ways around those barriers, usually by buying homes through Taiwanese business partners or using overseas investment schemes to mask their activity, agents and industry watchers said.
While the number of individual mainland buyers is small - Taiwan allows only 400 flats to be sold to mainland Chinese each year - it is clear that more mainland capital is flowing in.
Government figures show Chinese have bought 160 properties valued at T$2.3 billion ($76.6 million) since Taiwan allowed mainland capital to invest in real estate in 2002.
Many industry watchers and agents say, however, that those numbers are under-reported.
In just one transaction two years ago, a Taipei-based real estate attorney said he helped a Chinese state-owned steel company buy land worth T$580 million under the name of a Taiwanese shareholder.
The deal, concluded in Hong Kong, was recorded as a domestic transaction and surpassed the T$530 million in mainland property investment reported by Taiwan's government from 2002 to 2011.
"Transactions under the table would be at least 10 times more than what we see on the table," said the attorney, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter.
MUM'S THE WORD
"Most mainland investments detour through somewhere else in order to enter Taiwan, which is quite mysterious and makes it hard to trace where those overseas companies are really from," said Erin Ting, senior research manager at property consultancy Savills.
Some places where mainland investors set up overseas subsidiaries before entering Taiwan include Hong Kong, Singapore and British Virgin Islands (BVI), some agents said.
"The government only looks at the very last door of the money flows," Ting said. "It's likely that many are from mainland China but it's all under the table so no one would say it out loud."
Wu Zhongxian, commercial property assistant manager at property agency H&B Business Group, said mainland investors were eyeing hotels and retail shops in popular tourist areas as Taiwan allowed more Chinese individual tourists to visit.
"It takes them 1.5 to two years if they follow government rules," Wu said. "So they buy via BVI firms or through a particular person in the company."
Beijing-based developer Vantone Real Estate, the first mainland developer to enter Taiwan's market in 2011 by setting up an associate company in Singapore, said 40 percent of its 294 high-end flats in Taipei had been sold to mainland Chinese buyers by July of this year.
"Many Chinese clients are longing for Taiwan," said Kidd Lin, sales manager at Vantone International Development Ltd. "Taiwan offers a lifestyle that Chinese middle class are most looking forward to."
Many Chinese are attracted to Taiwan thanks to a similar language and culture.
Vantone's large, high-end apartments just 30 minutes from the center of Taipei sell for between T$30 million and T$100 million.
Other mainland developers, including Fujian-based Yuzhou Properties, are planning to follow Vantone into the Taiwanese market.
Vantone's Taipei project - the first large-scale home sales to mainland Chinese - may, however, be subject to strict government scrutiny and it remains to be seen how many flat sales will be approved to mainland Chinese as local elections approach, several industry watchers said.
"It's sensitive timing. We want to stay low-key," said Lana Xie, founder of a Beijing-based real estate agency that targets individual Chinese buyers for Taiwanese residential property.
Xie said transactions had doubled in the first half of this year, with most Chinese buyers chasing "holiday homes" in southern Taiwanese cities.
"It's really not easy for Chinese to buy a property in Taiwan," Xie said. "That's why owning a Taiwan house is really something Chinese can show off to everyone."
(Additional reporting by James Zhang and Clare Jim; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree, Stephen Coates and Ryan Woo)