Tens of thousands of Hongkongers who moved to the UK are being blocked from accessing as much as £2.2bn of pension assets, as activists accuse the city’s government of retaliating against those deemed “unpatriotic” following a political crackdown.
The figures, released by UK advocacy group Hong Kong Watch on the eve of the first visit to the UK by a ministerial-level Hong Kong official since 2019, demonstrate how more than 90,000 people are being “punished” for emigrating under the British National (Overseas) programme, the group said.
“It’s a blanket ban on BN(O) holders accessing the property that is theirs,” said Sam Goodman, director of policy and advocacy at Hong Kong Watch, calling the move a “punishment for those taking the step to the UK”.
In the wake of a crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019, the UK offered millions of the city’s residents a path to citizenship under the BN(O) programme — a move that angered Chinese authorities.
In response, the Hong Kong government in 2021 effectively prevented pension funds in the city from immediately paying out to residents who left under the BN(O) scheme. The government said individuals could not use emigration under the UK offer as a valid reason for early withdrawal of the funds.
A number of banks, insurers and financial institutions offer pension funds under the Hong Kong government’s Mandatory Provident Fund retirement saving system, including Manulife, Invesco, Fidelity and HSBC. Generally, former Hong Kong residents may reclaim their pension funds if they move abroad permanently.
Hong Kong Watch calculated the £2.2bn figure based on the average MPF account balance of HK$224,000 ($28,500), which it multiplied by the approximate number of BN(O) visa holders who are not dependants or children — about 96,000 people based on the number of applications between January 2021 and December 2022. In total, there were about 160,700 applications in that period.
“If 30 per cent hold an MPF with HSBC as a trustee, then HSBC is denying access to . . . [assets] which belong to BN(O) visa holders who have permanently left the territory to start a new life in the UK,” Hong Kong Watch said.
In response to a request for comment, the Hong Kong government reiterated that MPF scheme members “cannot rely on BN(O) passport nor its associated visa as evidence in applying for early withdrawal of MPF”.
HSBC said it was obliged to comply with Hong Kong government requirements. “Like all banks, we have to obey the law, and the instructions of the regulators, in every region in which we operate,” the bank said.
Fidelity said: “As one of the largest MPF providers in Hong Kong, we have a comprehensive withdrawal protocol from scheme trustee that aligns with [the Mandatory Provident Fund Schemes Authority’s] guidelines.” Manulife did not respond to requests for comment. Invesco declined to comment.
Lawyers said Hong Kong BN(O) holders should be entitled to access their funds after gaining full UK citizenship, which they can qualify for after five years, as the MPF authority should accept a British passport as proof of permanent relocation.
“BN(O) passport holders . . . may need to wait until they have obtained a British citizen passport or attained the retirement age of 65 to apply to withdraw their MPF benefits,” said Kenneth Leung, a Hong Kong lawyer specialising in pensions.
The MPF agency declined to clarify how it would honour former residents’ withdrawal requests.
“If scheme members attempt to withdraw their MPF early on the grounds of permanent departure from Hong Kong but the MPF trustees are not satisfied with the evidence, the MPF will remain in the scheme members’ MPF accounts,” the authority said.
Financial services secretary Christopher Hui’s proposed trip to the UK this month will be the first since the UK accused China of violating the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the 1984 treaty under which Hong Kong was transferred to Chinese control.