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Beijing and HSBC are staying in Hong Kong for the long run, and there’s not much anyone can do about it.
That’s the conclusion of a British parliament hearing with the bank’s boss on Tuesday.
HSBC will continue to work with the authorities in Hong Kong, chief executive officer Noel Quinn told MPs as he faced accusations the bank is abetting a Chinese Communist Party campaign of repression against democracy activists in the former colony.
Headquartered in London, HSBC is the biggest U.K. bank by assets, but over 40 percent of its activity is tied to China and Hong Kong, where it was created in 1865 out of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation.
Speaking at the foreign affairs committee, Quinn defended the bankâ€™s decision to block the accounts of democracy activists and politicians critical of Beijing following a period of civil unrest in the territory.
â€œIf itâ€™s a properly executed law enforcement instruction in any market in which we operate in, any bank, not just us, is officially obliged to comply,â€ Quinn said. â€œAnd if we do not, we ourselves would be committing a criminal offense.â€
Quinn refused to express an opinion on Chinaâ€™s policies in Hong Kong, which have been condemned by the U.K. government as well as the U.S. and the EU. â€œItâ€™s not my position to make a moral or a political judgment on these matters, I have to comply with the law,â€ he said.
Bob Seely, a Conservative Party member of the committee and staunch opponent of Chinaâ€™s handling of Hong Kong, slammed Quinnâ€™s remarks.
â€œNo one is demanding HSBC walk away. We understand complexity, and we know the difficulties they face,â€ Seely said in an interview after the session. â€œBut to avoid any conversation about values or ethical dilemmas was very poor.â€
Ted Hui, a former Hong Kong lawmaker critical of Beijing’s policies, joined the criticism over HSBC blocking his accounts at the behest of local police after he’d fled to London.
“Quinn was evasive during the questioning and has failed to clearly spell out the legal justification for the decision” to block the accounts, Hui said in a telephone interview. He said he gave the parliamentary committee information necessary for the hearing.
There to stay
Quinn was adamant in the hearing that the bank will continue to do business in Hong Kong regardless of the criticism directed at itself or the authorities there.
â€œIf the question was, am I willing to walk away from Hong Kong, the answer is no. We are too committed as an institution through our heritage and our history,â€ he said.
Quinn also defended his bank’s support for the China-imposed national security law in Hong Kong, which has been widely denounced by Washington, London and Brussels as a violation of human rights.
“When [Quinn] said he supported the Hong Kong governmentâ€™s action to stop violence, it shows that he accepted the political propaganda unreservedly,â€ Hui said.
Quinn stood by HSBCâ€™s chief in Hong Kong, Peter Wong, who signed a petition in support of the national security law. Quinn added that he had personally witnessed damage done by the protesters and said Wong was only expressing a desire to restore Hong Kong to stability.
On the issue of forced labor in the Xinjiang province of China, Quinn said the bank carefully vets its clients against its human rights policy.
â€œWe donâ€™t have any activities taking place in Xinjiang,â€ he said, adding that HSBC verifies â€œany company that we bank, and if they have activities in that area we review their activities to see if they or their supply chain are involved in any form of human rights abuse.â€
The executive said he was not concerned whether HSBCâ€™s top management in China were Communist Party members, as the Telegraph reported last month. Said Quinn, â€œTo be fair,Â I’m not going to turn around and suddenly go asking all of my colleagues in China, are you a Communist Party member?â€
Seely conceded after the hearing that the U.K. parliament would not be in a position to take further action. In a text message, he added: â€œTheir customers can make up their own minds about HSBCâ€™s â€˜valuesâ€™.â€
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