Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia — When Ivan Chan moved to the United Kingdom with his wife and two children in 2021 to escape China’s crackdown on Hong Kong, he knew it would mean leaving behind almost $90,000 in retirement savings.
Under the rules of Hong Kong’s compulsory pension scheme, Chan, 40, would normally be entitled to withdraw his savings early as someone who has permanently departed the city.
Instead, Chan has been locked out of his pension as authorities in the former British colony refuse to recognise the British National (Overseas) — or BNO — passport that he used to emigrate as a valid form of ID.
“If we couldn’t get that money, it would be difficult for our financial planning,” Chan, a former civil servant who now works in a supermarket in London, told Al Jazeera.
“Of course our retirement life will change.”
“They don’t like people moving out of Hong Kong and they will do whatever … to punish them,” Chan said.
Chan’s case is not unique.
Hong Kong Watch, a UK-based activist group, last month estimated that Hong Kongers in the UK had been denied access to over $2.8bn in pension savings.
More than 144,000 Hong Kongers have moved to the UK since it began offering BNO passport holders work and residency rights in response to Beijing’s imposition of a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong in 2020, following pro-democracy mass protests that turned violent.
Under the law, Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms, which once set the territory apart from the Chinese mainland, have drastically declined despite a “one country, two systems” arrangement that was supposed to guarantee the city’s way of life for at least 50 years after the handover from British rule.
Hong Kong authorities have effectively wiped out all political opposition by arresting or disqualifying most of the city’s pro-democracy legislators, shutting down critical media outlets, and all but outlawing criticism of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Beijing and Hong Kong officials have hailed the legislation for restoring peace and stability to the Asian financial hub.
After the UK announced its visa plan, China said it would no longer recognise BNO passports, accusing London of meddling in its internal affairs.
Since Beijing’s announcement, Hong Kong’s Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) Authority, which regulates the pension scheme, has instructed banks that manage contributors’ savings not to accept the use of BNO passports for early withdrawal applications.
While authorities have denied any political motive for the changes to the pension rules, affected Hong Kongers have little doubt they are being punished for defying the CCP.
“I think this is a kind of punishment and they treat the Hong Kong-born people as slaves,” a 47-year-old Hong Kong emigre who fled the city in 2021 told Al Jazeera, asking to remain anonymous.
He said he has been denied access to about $100,000 in retirement savings.
“It just made my transition much harder. Of course it is an extra burden to me,” he said.
Under the current rules, Hong Kongers who are presently unable to access their pension should be able to do so when they either reach retirement age or acquire a new passport through UK citizenship.
But some Hong Kongers are fearful that the Chinese government will simply change the rules again to ensure they cannot get what is rightfully theirs.
“I don’t have any hope to get it from the Hong Kong government or the Chinese government,” said the Hong Konger emigre who asked to remain anonymous.
“Literally it is gone,” he said.
The situation has also prompted scrutiny of the role of the banks that manage Hong Kongers’ pensions, including London-headquartered HSBC.
Sam Goodman, director of policy and advocacy at Hong Kong Watch, said HSBC was complicit in a “brazen asset grab” by Beijing that is intended to warn Hong Kongers against leaving.
“HSBC is not satisfying its responsibilities as a trustee of the Mandatory Provident Fund,” Goodman told Al Jazeera.
“It must explain to its customers why it is blocking access to their hard-earned savings and the UK 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.”
An HSBC spokesperson said the bank was obligated to follow the law and regulator’s instructions in all jurisdictions in which it operates.
“In the case of permanent departure, scheme members are required to provide evidence of the right of abode outside of Hong Kong,” the spokesperson said. “The regulator has publicly confirmed that a BN(O) passport cannot be used as such evidence.”
A spokesperson for Manulife, which also manages MPF funds, said the bank has been following industry practices and regulatory requirements.
Other banks that manage MPF funds, including Standard Chartered, China Life and ING, did not respond to requests for comment.
A spokesperson for the Mandatory Provident Fund Authority rejected suggestions that Hong Kongers were being punished for moving to the UK.
“MPF scheme members who have moved to foreign countries are not forbidden to withdraw their MPF as long as the withdrawal criteria are fulfilled, and we strongly condemn the false allegation that Hong Kong people are punished for emigrating,” the spokesperson told Al Jazeera.
“Such [a] baseless claim is not only misleading, but also undermining the credibility of the MPF System.”
For Hong Kongers like Chan, such explanations ring hollow.
Chan, who said his children’s education was the biggest factor behind the decision to emigrate, plans to apply to withdraw his pension when he acquires UK citizenship, although he is not optimistic that he will ever get his money.
“The money is ours,” he said. “Let us freely manage our money.”