No new ID card? No problem - and no fine
The message was serious: failure to apply for a new identity card was a prosecutable offence liable to a fine of up to HK$5,000 on conviction.
So went the official line.
But with the smart ID replacement exercise drawing to a close at the end of the month, officials have revealed that not one person has been prosecuted since the drive started in 2003.
'Up to the present, no people have been prosecuted for failing to replace their identity cards within the specified period,' an Immigration Department spokeswoman said.
Since June 2003, the government has issued 6.6 million smart identity cards. Of those, 4.9 million were issued under the replacement scheme. The rest were issued to people reaching the age of 18 or attaining permanent residency, to children reaching the age of 11, or because of theft or defacement.
According to last year's by-census, Hong Kong's population is 6.86 million.
But the government declined to say how many eligible applicants had failed to apply to replace their old ID cards during the periods designated by the government, thereby possibly exposing themselves to a HK$5,000 fine.
'It's a number that fluctuates daily as ID card holders enter and leave Hong Kong. It's meaningless for us to release it,' the spokeswoman said.
Lucy Cardone, an Australian who has lived in Hong Kong since 2000, described how she was able to avoid replacing her identity card for three years, even though she was supposed to have done so in late 2003.
After using her old Hong Kong ID card to return from abroad on nine occasions, she was only told in January while returning from Australia that her card had expired. 'They didn't give us much trouble. The immigration official was very civilised, in fact,' she said.
Ms Cardone, who is in her 40s, said she was told to supply a reason for failing to replace her ID card in 2003, but added that her explanation - that she was having a child - was readily accepted by officials.
'I was out of the replacement centre in an hour,' she said.
James To Kun-sun, chairman of the Legislative Council's security panel, agreed that the government should only as a last resort prosecute people for not replacing their ID cards. The last of the traditional ID cards is scheduled to expire by the second half of next year.