BEIJING — Thousands of people in China are trying to write their own ticket out of the country — in French.
Chinese desperate to emigrate have discovered a backdoor into Canada that involves applying for entry into the country's francophone province of Quebec — which requires foreigners to have a good working knowledge of the local lingo.
While learning French as a second language is losing popularity in many parts of the world and even as Mandarin classes proliferate because of China's rise on the international stage, many Chinese are busy learning how to say, "Bonjour, je m'appelle Zhang." ("Hello, my name is Zhang.")
Yin Shanshan said the French class she takes in the port city of Tianjin near Beijing even gives primers on Quebec's history and its geography, including the names of suburbs around its biggest city, Montreal.
"My French class is a lot of fun," the 25-year-old said. "So far, I can say 'My name is ... I come from ... I live at.' "
Getting straight to the business of settling down in the province, she said she has learned to say, "I would like to rent a medium-sized, one-bedroom flat."
Despite China's growing prosperity and clout, more and more of its citizens are rushing to emigrate. They are eager to provide better education prospects for their children and escape from their country's long-standing problems, including pollution and contaminated food.
Canada joins the United States and Australia among the most-favored destinations.
Many governments are imposing tougher immigration rules by adopting new quotas, cutting the professions sought under skilled-worker programs and raising the amount of financial commitment needed for the exemptions granted to big-time investors.
Next stop, Quebec
That is where Quebec comes in.
The province selects its own immigrants and does not have any cap or backlog of applicants, like Canada's national program does. But it requires most immigrants to demonstrate their knowledge of French.
Immigration agencies in Beijing started pushing this program over the past year.
"This is the only way out, there's no other way," said Quebec-based immigration consultant Joyce Li.
These transplants must commit to living in Quebec in their application, but, later on, they can take advantage of Canadian rights to move to Toronto or Vancouver, as most emigrant business investors do, she said.
"At the interview, they make you sign the paper. But once in Canada, the Charter of Rights lets you live anywhere," she said. "Only about 10 percent of Chinese using the Quebec [investor] program come here or even less. You don't see any of them. It's too cold for many Chinese people. There's no direct flights."
Many Chinese have in the past sought to leverage their way into Canada with job skills, as family members of Chinese already there or with the country's emigrant-investor program, which gives foreigners with a net worth of $1.6 million a fast-track to permanent residency.
But a backlog of cases has prompted the federal government to halt some kinds of family sponsorship applications for two years, and cap investor applicants at 700 per year.
Chinese are increasingly focusing on Quebec, said Zhao Yangyang, who works at immigration agency Beijing Royal Way Ahead Exit & Entry Service Co.
"That's why many people, whether they are rich or skilled professionals, are trying hard to learn French," she said.
Quebec's immigration minister, Kathleen Weil, said the province welcomes the heightened interest from potential immigrants.
"We're happy about it, and we want to keep them here," she said.
Alliance Francaise, which promotes French language and culture, turned away would-be students in the Chinese capital last year because its classes there were full for the first time ever.
"There is a growing demand for immigration to French-speaking countries and especially Quebec," said Laurent Croset, managing director of Alliance Francaise in China.
The number of lesson hours sold across China from October 2010 to September 2011 increased by 14 percent compared with the same period in the previous year.
Many of those who want to leave are middle-class professionals who own a larger-than-average apartment in Beijing or Shanghai and earn more than an annual $32,000, according to Ms. Zhao of the Beijing immigration consultancy.
"Of all those who want or plan to emigrate, 80 percent want their children to get a better education," she said.
Chinese were the biggest group of immigrants to Canada from 2001 to 2009, although they fell to third place in 2010 behind people from the Philippines and India, even as the numbers of Chinese rose.
In 2010-2011, China became the No. 1 source for immigrants to Australia as numbers of new Chinese migrants rose to just under 30,000. In the United States, Chinese were behind only Mexicans in being granted lawful permanent residence in the three years to 2010, the latest year for which data is available.
The exodus highlights how many Chinese see a better future abroad.
While China's policies have lifted millions out of poverty over the past two decades, the authoritarian communist government tightly controls many aspects of daily life. China's leaders punish dissent and any perceived challenges to their power, and censor what can be read online and in print. They forcibly limit most families to one child.
Meanwhile, single-party rule has failed to stop a growing rich-poor divide or address problems of pollution and contaminated food.