Rights group says banks are withholding pension pots from U.K.-based Hong Kongers

Blockage is seen as a form of punishment for leaving Hong Kong amid a crackdown on dissent.
By Lee Yuk Yue for RFA Cantonese
Rights group says banks are withholding pension pots from U.K.-based Hong Kongers In this Oct. 16, 2022 handout photo, Chinese consulate staffers walk to remove a poster featuring President Xi Jinping during a demonstration by pro-democracy protesters outside the consulate in Manchester, UK
(Matthew Leung/The Chaser Neas via AFP)

London-based rights group Hong Kong Watch has accused banks of perpetrating a “brazen asset grab” by withholding up to U.S.$2.4 billion in the pension pots of Hong Kongers who have emigrated to the United Kingdom under its British National Overseas visa scheme.

Banks have written to several people who sought to withdraw funds from the city's compulsory Mandatory Provident Fund savings plan on the grounds that they had left the city permanently, rejecting their requests, according to a recent investigation by the group.

The group called it a form of "punishment" for leaving amid an ongoing crackdown on dissent.

The small group of protesters gathered outside London's Guildhall as Hong Kong financial chief Christopher Hui gave a speech inside, and some ran after Hui's car after he left the venue by the back door.

The letters from the banks cited Hong Kong government guidance issued on March 10, 2021, for the decision, which stated that the British National Overseas passport can no longer be used as part of an application to withdraw accumulated pension savings.

The group blamed China's foreign ministry for revoking recognition of British National Overseas passports in anger at the launch of the visa scheme in January 2021, saying it was in breach of British promises prior to the 1997 handover.

The British government says 160,700 people have emigrated to the United Kingdom on its BNO visa scheme, which includes a pathway to permanent residency and citizenship, since its launch in 2021, which prompted retaliation from Beijing.

The majority of these visas are being used to live in the U.K., with an estimated 60% holding Mandatory Provident Fund accounts, Hong Kong Watch found.

"Taking the average MPF account size (U.S.$28,500), and multiplying it by the number of main BNO visa holders (96,000) there would be around £2.2 billion (U.S.$2.4 billion) of ... assets that Hong Kongers are currently being denied access to," the group's investigative report said.

Sam Goodman, director of policy and advocacy at Hong Kong Watch, said: "The Chinese government’s retaliatory action to no longer recognise the British National (Overseas) passport is designed to financially punish those leaving the territory and is a gross violation of its obligations under [the treaty and constitutional arrangements governing the handover]."

"This amounts to a brazen asset grab that is a punitive measure targeting anyone who has left Hong Kong under the BNO visa scheme and is intended to warn others who are thinking of leaving," Goodman said.

In this July 18, 2021 photo, a couple hug at Hong Kong's International Airport a day before the British government’s deadline allowing Hong Kongers right to visit the UK if ineligible to enter under an existing immigration route. (Bertha Wang/AFP)

The report singled out HSBC for criticism, saying the bank had been supportive of a draconian national security law imposed on Hong Kong by the Communist Party from July 1, 2020.

"[The bank] has around 30% of the Mandatory Provident Fund market through various schemes, meaning that it would be withholding an estimated £660 million (U.S.$820 million) of assets," it said.

According to Goodman, the bank is failing to satisfy its responsibilities as a trustee of the compulsory pension scheme.

"It must explain to its customers why it is blocking access to their hard-earned savings and the U.K. government must ask why a London-headquartered bank is doing the bidding of an authoritarian government by failing to recognise a valid government issued document," he said in a statement issued with the report.

HSBC hadn't replied to a request for comment from RFA's Cantonese Service by the time of publication.

Veteran Hong Kong journalist Joseph Ngan said it is now looking increasingly unlikely that people leaving the city for good will be given access to their money.

"This is very worrying," Ngan told Radio Free Asia. "It's likely that the authorities will make various excuses, including the fact that the person has applied for British citizenship via the British National Overseas route [to withhold their money]."

"It seems that the Hong Kong government wants to make things as difficult as possible for people emigrating to the U.K. on the British National Overseas route."

A May 2022 report found that nearly one in four Hongkongers who fled the ongoing political crackdown under the ruling Chinese Communist Party still suffered from symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome linked to police violence during the 2019 protests and the subsequent fear engendered by the national security law.

The survey of recently arrived migrants by the Hongkongers in Britain group found that 23.8% of respondents reported symptoms of PTSD linked to the 2019 protests and subsequent political crackdown, while nearly 19% reported symptoms of depression and 25.8% reported symptoms of anxiety disorders.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.


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