This month, the Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department reportedthat China imported 102,779 kilograms of gold from Hong Kong in November, an increase from October’s 86,299 kilograms.  Beijing does not release gold trade figures, so for this and other reasons the Hong Kong numbers are considered the best indication of China’s gold imports.

Analysts believe China bought as much as 490 tons of gold in 2011, double the estimated 245 tons in 2010.  “The thing that’s caught people’s minds is the massive increase in Chinese buying,” remarked Ross Norman of Sharps Pixley, a London gold brokerage, this month.

So who in China is buying all this gold?

The People’s Bank of China, the central bank, has been hinting that it is purchasing.  “No asset is safe now,” said the PBOC’s Zhang Jianhua at the end of last month.  “The only choice to hedge risks is to hold hard currency—gold.”  He also said it was smart strategy to buy on market dips.  Analysts naturally jumped on his comment as proof that China, the world’s fifth-largest holder of the metal, is in the market for more.

A better explanation for the gold-buying binge of Chinese citizens is that they are using the shiny commodity as an inflation hedge, as the Financial Timesrecently suggested.  Yet the buying of gold has increased while inflation has eased.  And that means there must be another explanation.  The best explanation is that individuals in China are using gold as a substitute for capital flight.

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