The UK tax department has been urged to stop sharing information with China after an investigation found that campaigners against the country’s authoritarian regime are having their personal details shared without their knowledge.
HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has divulged the UK addresses and bank balances of Hong Kong and Chinese nationals, according to The Times, leading to worries that it could leave them vulnerable to reprisals from mainland authorities.
The revelations follow an agreement signed by countries in 2014 to stop tax evasion. Under it, countries automatically share basic financial information about each other’s expats.
China and Hong Kong joined the scheme in 2018, allowing them to receive addresses, tax identification numbers, bank account numbers and balances from HMRC.
However, concerns have since been raised about what safeguards are in place to prevent autocratic countries from misusing this information.
Under Xi Jinping, China has been accused of being more authoritarian. The UK said China’s national security law, imposed on Hong Kong in 2020, has been used to persecute, “silence and discredit” pro-democracy opposition figures.
Since then the UK has become a refuge for individuals from Hong Kong and their immediate relatives, with some 160,000 Hong Kongers applying for a British National (Overseas) (BNO) visa after the scheme was launched in 2021.
Although there is the option to opt out of the tax sharing information, The Times found that nobody from China and Hong Kong has asked for or been granted the right to redact their information over the last five years.
The Government has been criticised for not publishing the option clearly enough. It is listed in an obscure section of the relevant website and the welcome guide for those entering under the BNO scheme makes no reference to it.
Conservative MP Alicia Kearns, who chairs the foreign affairs select committee, told The Times that those who flee to the UK “deserve to know they are protected”.
“We must do more to tackle the permissive environment for transnational oppression by authoritarian regimes across our country and within our bureaucracies,” she said.
“I urge HMRC to establish clearer guidance on this matter, and to proactively communicate to BNO holders their right to exemption should they need it.”
Financial harassment is commonly deployed by China, with financial investigations used as a way to harass activists still working in Hong Kong.
In April, the Financial Times revealed that Hong Kong’s government was blocking emigrants to the UK from accessing £2.2 billion held in pension savings schemes.
A HMRC spokesperson said: “The UK exchanges data with around 100 countries to help tackle tax evasion and non-compliance in-line with international treaties.
“The data can only be used for tax purposes and all countries must pass a rigorous assessment by independent experts to ensure the data is used appropriately.
“Account holders’ details are only shared with other countries if they are residents of that country, or there are indications they maybe resident there. Account holders can apply to have data with-held if they think their human rights might be infringed.”