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US Congress pushes sanctions on HK pension, judicial issues

In a harsh rebuke to China’s tightening authoritarian grip, a new U.S. congressional report has called for sanctions against Hong Kong judges and expanded efforts to protect emigrants’ pension funds.

The annual report from the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) on Tuesday recommends Congress-authorized sanctions on members of Hong Kong’s judiciary, including foreign nationals serving on the city’s Court of Final Appeal. It also urges action to prevent U.S. financial institutions from cooperating with Hong Kong authorities seeking to deny departing Hong Kongers access to their retirement savings.

Restrictions on MPF withdrawal 

Commenting on the situation of Hong Kong immigrants being denied access to their MPF (Mandatory Provident Fund) deposits, the CECC says it believes the practice is the Hong Kong government’s way of punishing Hong Kong people who have emigrated overseas by using BNO, or British National (Overseas), status after the National Security Act came into effect. 

This has resulted in some 90,000 BNO holders being denied access to their MPF deposits, according to the report. 

The CECC cited the U.S.-based Prudential Group and the U.K.-based Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) for refusing to allow Hong Kong residents to withdraw their MPF deposits after emigrating overseas.

Under the Hong Kong Autonomy Act passed in 2020, the U.S. Department of State is required to submit an annual report to Congress on the status of Hong Kong. As such, the CECC has recommended that Congress should direct the Department of State to include in the annual report information on the Hong Kong government’s restriction on the withdrawal of MPF by Hong Kong residents abroad. 

The CECC believes that the authorities may consider imposing sanctions on those involved in restricting the freedom of immigration. It also recommended that Congress take further steps to prevent U.S. financial institutions involved in the management of Hong Kong people’s funds from complying with the Hong Kong government’s requests to assist in the infringement of immigration freedoms and to withhold lawfully earned pensions from those involved.

Simon Lee, senior lecturer at the School of Accountancy of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the Hong Kong government not only lacks political advisers, but also a grasp of the global diplomatic struggle. 

“Now the MPF issue has escalated to the U.S. Congress, complicating the situation. It not only embarrasses the central government, but also affects the free flow of funds in Hong Kong and reduces investor confidence,” Lee told Radio Free Asia Cantonese on Nov. 15. 

“I think it’s silly to use all sorts of back doors to restrict MPF withdrawals. If unsure, it’s better not to do anything,” he said.

Instead, Lee suggested that the local authorities should relax the restrictions to avert any potential sanctions, and send out positive signals that will help maintain Hong Kong’s status as an international financial center. 

Judicial independence

The CECC also recommends that Congress amend the Hong Kong Autonomy Act to include in its annual report an assessment of Hong Kong’s judicial independence, reflecting faithfully whether the city’s chief executive, or any other body acting on behalf of the Chinese government, has exerted undue influence on its judicial system in a way that infringes on the right to a fair and independent trial guaranteed by the Basic Law. 

Based on the assessment results, Congress may impose sanctions on individuals serving in the Hong Kong judiciary, including foreign judges serving in the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal, the report noted. 

Samuel Bickett, an American lawyer who used to work in Hong Kong, told RFA Cantonese that Hong Kong no longer had judicial independence and the rule of law to speak of, and that every judge and prosecutor involved in trials under the National Security Act had a role to play in undermining the city’s autonomy. 

“I think it’s a sign that different parts of the U.S. government, from Congress to the executive branch, have taken note of the need for further sanctions [against Hong Kong] and the failure of the U.S. government to implement them over the last few years,” Bickett said. 

“It’s a good sign that the Hong Kong 47 case, the Stand News case, the Jimmy Lai trial, all of these cases are going to get the attention of the United States and add momentum to the actions of the U.S. Congress and the president.”

The CECC was established by the U.S. Congress in 2000 to study, report and make recommendations on how the U.S.-China trade and economic relationship affects U.S. national security.

In the past, Congress introduced bills to sanction Hong Kong judges. 

Early this month, a bipartisan group of Congress members co-sponsored a bill on sanctions against Hong Kong officials – The Hong Kong Sanctions Act – which involves a list of 49 people and is the first time that a number of Hong Kong National Security Act judges and prosecutors are named in the bill. 

Translated by RFA Staff. Edited by Mike Firn and Elaine Chan.