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 — as long as they have a good working knowledge of the local lingo.
So, while learning French as an additional language is losing ground in many parts of the world — 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."
Yin Shanshan said the French class she takes in the port city of Tianjin near Beijing even includes 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' " and, getting straight to the business of settling down in the province: "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 the exits, eager to provide better education prospects for their children and escape from their country's long-standing problems, including hazardous pollution and contaminated food.
Canada joins the United States and Australia among the most favored destinations.
But many governments are making it harder to emigrate by imposing 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.
That's where Quebec comes in.
The province selects its own immigrants and doesn't 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, telling people, "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, which most investor-emigrants 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. 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.
So, 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. It's an "enormous" rise, Croset said.
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 200,000 yuan ($32,000), according to 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 number one source for immigrants to Australia as numbers of new Chinese migrants rose to just under 30,000. In the U.S., 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 last two decades, the authoritarian 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 limit most families to one child.
A test-centric education system hinders innovation. Many parents want to send their children to study abroad but are not able to afford it unless they emigrate.
Meanwhile, single-party rule has failed to stop a growing rich-poor divide or address problems of pollution and contaminated food.Comment on this story
Even the sister of Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to become China's next president, lives in Canada, according to a Wikileaks-released U.S. diplomatic cable that cites a former close friend of Xi's.
Yin, who is studying French in polluted Tianjin and who teaches Chinese at a middle school, hopes to eventually study for a master's degree once she successfully settles in Canada.
"I have relatives and friends who succeeded in emigrating to Canada so that's what inspired me to move there," she said. "I think what attracted me to Canada is its environment, including the air and food safety, and also the welfare system and education. Education for the next generation."
Sean Farrell in Montreal contributed to this report.