By Jessie Pang
HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s anti-corruption agency said on Friday 20 people had been arrested suspected of taking bribes to help people apply for early withdrawal of government pension funds with false documents, amid a row over new passports offered by Britain.
Hong Kong pension funds have been in the spotlight since the emigration of more than 140,000 Hong Kong people to Britain after 2020 when China imposed a national security law on the former British colony, cracking down on dissent.
Many of these were offered a path to citizenship by Britain through a British National (Overseas) passport scheme. The authority running the pension scheme then said it would not accept the passport as a valid document for the withdrawal of funds.
The Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) said the mastermind of the false document scheme was an insurance agent who helped a number of Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) pension scheme members get their money early.
People can usually only withdraw the money once they reach 60.
The agent is alleged to have falsely claimed MPF scheme members would permanently leave Hong Kong to live in mainland China by using false documents including proof of employment or residence.
The agent had allegedly accepted bribes of up to tens of thousands of Hong Kong dollars per applicant, the ICAC said.
Among the 20 suspects, 10 were MPF scheme members. The ICAC did not identify any of the people arrested but said they had all been released on bail.
The national security law, which was introduced after months of sometimes violent anti-government, pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, criminalises acts of subversion, terrorism, collusion with foreign forces and secession with possible life imprisonment.
According to the UK advocacy group Hong Kong Watch, thousands of Hong Kongers who have moved to the UK have been denied access to over £2.2 billion of their savings held in their MPF accounts.
Over 90 British parliamentarians wrote to the UK government to demand action over the blocked pensions in May.
Residents leaving Hong Kong for good withdrew a total of HK$1.79 billion ($228 million) from their MPF pension accounts in the second quarter of 2023, down 15.5 percent from a year earlier, government data showed.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
(Reporting by Jessie Pang; Editing by Nick Macfie)