A group of Hong Kong homebuyers have complained to the government watchdog after investing in unfinished housing projects in mainland China. Their requests for assistance have gone unanswered by local and central authorities, they said.

Some members of the group said they had invested millions of Hong Kong dollars in properties in the Greater Bay Area (GBA), the development of which was promoted by the government. However, construction of the the apartments they bought was never completed.

The Office of the Ombudsman, homebuyers
A group of Hong Kong homebuyers petitioned to the Office of the Ombudsman on Tuesday. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

The GBA consists of Hong Kong, Macau and nine major cities in Guangdong province, and aims to further deepen the cooperation between the mainland and the two special administrative regions. The area is expected to support China’s technology innovation and economic development.

Speaking to the press outside the Office of the Ombudsman, Ms. Yip said she had bought two unfinished units in Zhongshan city.

“The government promoted the GBA and told us to buy properties to live and work there, so we bought them in a group,” she said.

She said she had tried to appeal to authorities in Beijing but to no avail. She then reported her case to the Hong Kong police, as well as to two pro-Beijing political parties – the DAB and the Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) – who helped raise the issue with the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau. She had heard no response since, Yip said.

Yip said that Chief Executive John Lee should raise the issue with the Chinese leader Xi Jinping. “We love the nation and love Hong Kong, that’s why we bought these properties,” she added.

“Now that problems have arisen, the [local] government cannot just pass the [responsibility] to its constitutional and mainland affairs branch.”

“Who will stand up for us?” she asked.

The Office of the Ombudsman
The Office of the Ombudsman. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

The CMAB told HKFP that it, along with the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Offices in Guangdong, had provided assistance seeking help in mainland property transactions over the years and stepped up public education.

“If the Hong Kong residents seeking assistance wish to make complaints or appeals to the Mainland authorities under its coverage, the Government will refer their cases to the relevant Mainland authorities on request,” it added.

HKFP has reached out to the DAB and the FTU for comment.

Potentially thousands of victims

Ms. Chan, who invested around HK$1.5 million in housing in the GBA, said she estimated that there might be more than 6,000 victims in Hong Kong.

She said that one of the projects she invested in involved over 300 homebuyers. While the group that went to the Ombudsman’s office consisted of investors in nine construction projects, they said there were dozens of similar housing projects in the GBA.

A growing number of mainland Chinese homebuyers have refused to pay mortgages due to fears that their properties would not be completed by cash-strapped, debt-laden developers.

The Office of the Ombudsman, homebuyers
A group of Hong Kong homebuyers petitioned to the Office of the Ombudsman on Tuesday. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

According to an unofficial open-source dataset on GitHub, homebuyers of 328 Chinese housing projects have said that they would suspend their payments as of Wednesday, eight of which were located in Guangdong province.

“We hope that there won’t be another new victim in Hong Kong,” Chan said.

Agencies operating without licenses

Another victim, Ms. Leung, said they were not only fighting to get their money back, but were also asking the government to improve its regulation of sales of overseas or mainland properties in Hong Kong.

Leung said she went on tours organised by different property agencies to inspect properties in the GBA and invested around HK$3 million in unfinished mainland housing projects. She later found out that many of these agencies operated without a license and were therefore outside the remit of the Estate Agents Ordinance.

“We are the victims of the absence of all-rounded government supervision,” Leung said.

The Office of the Ombudsman, homebuyers
A group of Hong Kong homebuyers holding the names of the unfinished housing projects they invested in. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

Citing a report published by the Consumer Council last year, Leung said the consumer watchdog’s hands were tied because of the inadequacies in regulating Hong Kong’s property market.

The current regulations exempt estate agents or salespersons from licensing if they deal exclusively with properties outside Hong Kong. Of the 261 complaints the council received between 2017 and 2021, 63 per cent involved unlicensed agents.

In its report, the Consumer Council called for all agents to be licensed, but the suggestion was dismissed by the Transport and Housing Bureau and the Estate Agents Authority, which said that such restrictions would “act contrary to the principle of free trade.”

Leung said authorities did not attach the same level of importance to their cases as to other online scams.

“People lose tens of thousands dollars when they are scammed by phishing calls, and [the authorities] have been very concerned. Why they are not concerned about us, when properties are involved?” she asked.

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Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.