Number of BNO recipients in Hong Kong soars to 500,000, but MPF fails to keep pace

Since the UK announced a new immigration route for those who qualify as British Citizens (Overseas) (BNO), the number of BNO applicants has increased sharply, with nearly 470,000 Hong Kong people holding valid BNO passports as of October.

Since the Umbrella Movement in 2014, the number of Hong Kong people applying for BNO passports (China does not recognize the BNO as a passport, but only as a travel document) rose to 20,000 to 37,000 per year at one point, and began to fall in 2017. 1.6 times the number of people who applied for passports in seven months, making the total number of people who received BNO passports last year about eight times higher than in 2018. By this year, the heat has not abated, with nearly 170,000 people being issued new BNO passports in the first ten months of the year, up from 154,218 for the whole of 2019. According to the UK Home Office figures, as of October 2, the number of BNO passport holders in Hong Kong has accumulated to 469,416 people, with an average of 20,400 additional BNO passports issued to Hong Kong people each month this year, it is estimated that the number of BNO passport holders in Hong Kong has now exceeded 500,000, while the number of people with BNO eligibility, the UK estimates that the spectrum remains at about 2.9 million.

In response to the National Security Law in Hong Kong, the UK has introduced a new immigration channel to allow BNO passport holders who originally do not have the right of abode in the US to apply for British citizenship after six years of residence in the UK from January next year; subsequently, the UK has introduced the “Leave Outside the Rules” scheme. (LOTR), which allows Hong Kong people holding BNO passports to enter the UK early and stay there legally for six months, so that they can apply for the above-mentioned route in January next year and become British citizens later. However, many applicants find it difficult to get back their MPF contributions in advance.

The amount of “permanent leave” to get back their MPF contributions rises year after year, hitting a record high of $4.8 billion last year.

The Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) scheme in Hong Kong requires employees to reach the age of 65 before they can withdraw their MPF contributions, but “leaving Hong Kong permanently” is one of the reasons for early withdrawal of MPF benefits. However, many BNO immigrants to the UK have not been able to get back their contributions from the trustee company even though they have provided foreign landing documents or working visas as they did in the past when they moved to other countries. The Apple Daily quoted a trustee company as saying that it had shelved more than 10,000 cases of LOTR applicants withdrawing their MPF contributions since July because the Mandatory Provident Fund Schemes Authority (MPFA), which oversees private provident fund schemes, had failed to specify what supporting documents LOTR applicants were required to provide in order to be eligible to withdraw their MPF contributions.

The crux of the issue is the different interpretations of the BNO status between the UK and China. During the Sino-British negotiations on the future of Hong Kong, there were two waves of immigration. In order to alleviate Hong Kong’s worries, China and the UK agreed that the UK could issue BNO passports with freedom of movement and consular protection but no right of abode, while China, which intends to issue SAR passports in Hong Kong, will only regard BNOs as travel documents. As a result, those who enter the UK via LOTR with BNO may not be regarded as immigrants, because BNO is only a “tourist visa”, not an immigration visa.

According to different trustee companies, it is unclear whether BNOs entering the UK can be regarded as immigrants and can get back their MPF contributions, and the announcement may have to wait until January next year when the BNO visa comes into effect.

According to the data of the MPFA, although the number of applications for early withdrawal of MPF on the grounds of permanent departure from Hong Kong has been fluctuating between 30,000 and 36,000, the amount has been rising, from HK$3,323 million in 2016 to a new high of HK$4,845 million last year. In the first quarter of this year, 7,600 people withdrew HK$1.295 billion for this reason, an increase of 32 percent year-on-year.

A person familiar with China’s situation told the station that Beijing does not mind Hong Kong people emigrating, as China can continue to let mainland Chinese fill in through different programs, or even “blood exchange”, but will not be happy to see a lot of capital outflow, and will take extreme measures if necessary.