Chief Executive Carrie Lam said on Tuesday that the government had gone against its usual practice in disclosing information about the passport status of Huawei’s top executive, Meng Wanzhou.
Lam said she had done so in order to prevent “unnecessary political speculation” about the case surrounding Meng, who faces multiple fraud charges related to alleged breaches of sanctions against Iran, for which the US seeks her extradition.
Meng, who is Huawei’s Chief Financial Officer, was arrested in Vancouver on December 1 while transferring planes on a trip from Hong Kong to Mexico, at the request of US authorities.
The request from the US resulted in the revelation in documents that she has had at least three Hong Kong passports.
At the time, it was unclear if she ever had had two or more valid Hong Kong passports at the same time.
Lam said that the Immigration Department had conducted a case review and confirmed that Meng only had one valid Hong Kong passport at any time.
Lam said that it was improper for the government to comment on individual cases because of privacy concerns, that case has become a diplomatic incident, and that judicial procedures were ongoing. But she said the Immigration Department had released two press releases to explain the general policy.
“At any point in time, one holder of a passport would only hold one valid passport, there is no doubt about that,” Lam said ahead of the weekly Executive Council meeting.
“Why do we have to stray away from the usual practice that we do not comment on individual cases, and make a clear explanation – because I am afraid that people with ulterior motives will use this incident to cause some harm to us,” she said.
“We have millions of residents who hold the Hong Kong SAR passport. Hong Kong residents travel frequently. The passport is widely recognised by the international community. Over 160 countries and territories give us visa-free status. Any doubt over the Hong Kong SAR passport and the passport issuing of the Immigration Department will affect the travels of millions.”
She added that as the chief executive, she had a duty to protect the interests of Hong Kong residents. “Because if this case sparks political speculation, then some countries may say ‘We will review whether to give you visa-free status’ – this is a very important issue,” she said.
Asked by a reporter if the government had double standards for Meng’s case, in that it had not explained the de facto expulsion of foreign journalist Victor Mallet, Lam replied: “You can say that to a certain extent.”
She added: “I am not saying that there is a double standard, but some cases cause serious outcomes, so I believe [in this case] there is a need to explain,” she said.
The Sing Tao Daily newspaper cited unidentified sources on Monday as saying that Meng had held several Hong Kong passports because she had often changed her name. The sources told the newspaper that she was given new passports after taking oaths, and that each of her new passports had a different number, and that she had only one valid Hong Kong passport at any point of time.
Lam said that there had been circumstances in which holders may ask for a new passport before its natural expiry date. Examples of such cases could include the loss of the passport, or a change of personal particulars. The old passport would be cancelled by the Immigration Department.
Another situation Lam gave an example of was one in which an old passport contained a valid visa.
“Very often, the valid visa is to America – I have that experience previously, and you don’t want to apply afresh for a valid visa because that valid visa may have a validity of a few years or up to ten years,” she said. “It is not uncommon for the passport holder to use a valid current passport, but at the same time in entering that particular country with visa requirements to present the old passport with the valid visa.”
Lam said that she agreed that the Immigration Department should look into the case in light of “its special circumstances and its exceptional nature,” following demands from lawmakers to explain the situation.
She said the department had conducted a case review and confirmed the case was in line with what the government has explained in public.
“Insofar as the issue of passports to Madam Meng, all the procedures and arrangements are in order.
She has been issued a few passports over a period since she has obtained the Hong Kong permanent resident status, because of the specified circumstances that I have explained. But at one point in time or at any point in time, she holds only one valid Hong Kong SAR passport,” Lam said.
Democratic Party lawmaker James To had on Monday urged the Hong Kong government to investigate the incident thoroughly to protect Hong Kong’s credibility.
On Tuesday, To said that he believed that Carrie Lam looked into the issue before ascertaining that Meng had only one passport at any time.
“If Carrie Lam is willing to place her credibility over the matter, I tend to believe that the Hong Kong government’s [passport] system has not been abused,” he said.
To said he hoped Lam would explain whether she had asked for information from Canada and the US over the case, before making her remarks.
“It would be better if she had obtained information from the two countries and confirmed [the information],” he said.