HSBC chiefs accused of 'appeasing' China over Hong Kong crackdown

Colin Freeman
·4 min read
Ex-Hong Kong lawmaker Ted Hui in Britain,  - Shutterstock
Ex-Hong Kong lawmaker Ted Hui in Britain, - Shutterstock

Banking giant HSBC has been accused of "appeasing" China after defending a decision by one of its top executives in Asia to back Beijing's security clampdown in Hong Kong.

The London-based bank became embroiled in a political row last June when its Asia-Pacific head, Peter Wong, signed a petition supporting China's imposition of draconian new security laws.

The legislation has been used to detain scores of pro-democracy activists, many of whom were involved in the vast anti-Beijing protests that shook Hong Kong in 2019.

On Tuesday, two of HSBC's top London-based managers, chief executive Noel Quinn and head of compliance head Colin Bell, were called to explain the decision before Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee.

MPs also wanted to quiz them over the bank's compliance with requests by Hong Kong's police to hand over banking records belonging to pro-democracy campaigners.

Asked about Mr Wong's signing of the petition, Mr Quinn insisted it had not been a "political statement", but merely support for an end to months of rioting that had damaged Hong Kong's economy.

"Peter was not advocating for a particular party or policy," he said. "That petition was to seek a resolution to the security concerns. It was not a political statement on his behalf, it was asking for the security situation to be resolved, which had culminated in an extended period of riots."

Mr Quinn added that he himself had witnessed buildings being destroyed and firebombed in Hong Kong, and that some 2.9 million other people had also signed the petition.

During the trouble, he added, some 30,000 HSBC employees had been prevented from going to work.

As a bank founded in the former British colony in 1865, he said, its bosses felt that the disturbances had become "damaging not only to the economy but to the people."

He also stressed that the bank had no choice but to comply with police requests for financial records of pro-democracy figures who had come under investigation.

Among those who have been targeted is Ted Hui, a pro-democracy politician whose accounts were frozen last year, and who has now fled to the UK.

"If we get a legal instruction from a police authority anywhere in the world, I have to comply with that," Mr Quinn said. "I am not in a position to judge the motives or the validity of it... I cannot cherry pick which laws to follow."

Mr Quinn's insistence that the bank was sticking to a policy of neutrality on political issues was challenged by the committee's MPs, who highlighted an HSBC advertising campaign produced in 2019 that addressed Brexit.

The campaign, which said: "We are not an island... we are part of something far far bigger", was accused at the time of pro-Remainer bias.

Tory MP Andrew Rosindell told Mr Quinn that HSBC was guilty of "double standards, hypocrisy and appeasement." "You have made statements on other issues," he said. "What you seem to be saying that it doesn't matter how bad things get in Hong Kong, that is none of your business. It seems there is no limit to what China will do before HSBC makes some kind of stand."

Mr Quinn replied: "We are not in Hong Kong just because of profits, we were formed in Hong Kong and we will continue to be there and help the people of Hong Kong recover from the challenges they face... I have to work with the legal framework we are given."

Tory MP Bob Seely claimed that Mr Quinn's answers showed that HSBC had not "adequately engaged" with the problems Hong Kong was facing.

"HSBC are happy to virtue-signal in the West, yet desperate even to avoid any ethical debate in Hong Kong," he said. "Their customers can make up their own minds about HSBC’s ‘values’."

HSBC has invested billions of dollars in expansion into mainland China, leaving it with little room for manoeuvre to defy Beijing's edicts.

It is already looking for a replacement for Asia boss Mr Wong, who is due for retirement.

Mr Hui, the Hong Kong politician now living in London, told The Telegraph that he "could not accept" Mr Quinn's account of how his bank accounts had been frozen.

"During the hearing he didn't explain at all the legal basis of freezing my account and whether the procedures are up to standard," he said.

He added: "Mr Quinn's defence of the security law - that it is a response to violence and destruction during the protests - is exactly the stance of the pro-Beijing regime in Hong Kong."