Hong Kong’s anti-graft watchdog has arrested 20 people on suspicion of withdrawing money out of their government pension funds using forged paperwork, sparking controversy among Hongkongers now residing in the UK.

The Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

According to a statement issued by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) on Friday, some 10 Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) scheme members and one insurance agent were among the 20 individuals arrested by the commission operation.

The arrestees, who have been released on bail, allegedly presented documents falsely indicating they would be leaving Hong Kong to reside in mainland China.

MPF scheme members can ordinarily only withdraw contributions when they reach the age of 65. According to the Mandatory Provident Fund Schemes Authority, scheme members who can demonstrate that they have left the city permanently can withdraw their money early.

Hong Kong has seen a mass emigration wave in the wake of Beijing imposing a national security law and strict Covid-19 rules even as they were abandoned around the world.

Among the top destinations is the UK, which launched a British National (Overseas) visa immigration route in July 2020. Under the scheme, BNO passport holders and their dependents can apply for permanent residency after living in the UK for five years. After one more year, they can apply for British citizenship.

BNO passport
File photo: Jimmy Lam/United Social Press.

MPF authorities said in 2021 after Hong Kong stopped recognising the BN(O) passport that scheme members “cannot rely on BN(O) passport or its associated visa as evidence in support of an application for early withdrawal of MPF.”

While the ICAC did not say those arrested had settled in the UK, local media cited sources saying that some Hong Kong migrants who had moved to Britain made an early MPF withdrawal by claiming they were relocating to mainland China, and that they could otherwise not get their money.

The insurance agent, which the ICAC said “masterminded” the operation, had allegedly accepted bribe payments ranging from several thousand dollars to several ten thousand dollars from each applicant in exchange for applying to withdraw their pension funds early using false documents.

“Such applications involved the use of false documents including statutory declarations and proofs of employment or residence in the Mainland,” the anti-graft watchdog’s statement read.

Investigation ongoing

The commission’s statement came after overseas outlet The Chaser reported on Friday that UK-based BN(O) passport holders had withdrawn their MPF money in Britain through an agent from insurance company Sun Life Financial, after making a sworn declaration with a lawyer’s help that they would permanently leave Hong Kong.

airport departures immigration emigration
Hong Kong International Airport. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The agent then prepared documents indicating that they would be relocating to mainland China or other cities in order to withdraw their pension funds.

In the Friday statement, the ICAC said an investigation was ongoing, and that it would seek advice from the Department of Justice to decide whether to prosecute the arrestees.

According to government data, residents who permanently left Hong Kong withdrew HK$1.79 billion from their MPF accounts in the second quarter of 2023 — a 15.5 percent drop year on year.

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James is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press with an interest in culture and social issues. He has a bachelor’s degree in English at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, with a minor in Journalism. He was previously a reporter at The Standard.