HSBC’s chief executive has denied taking a political stance on China’s crackdown in Hong Kong, claiming the bank was not in a position to question police requests when it agreed to freeze accounts of pro-democracy activists.
Questioned by MPs on the foreign affairs committee on Tuesday, Noel Quinn ruled out exiting the Hong Kong market in light of Beijing’s controversial new security laws, saying it “would only harm” local customers.
In a 90-minute exchange that left many MPs exasperated, the HSBC boss repeatedly refused to comment on issues of “democracy or political systems” and said his main motivation was to help Hong Kong’s economy and its citizens “through the current challenges”.
The London-headquartered bank has come under fire not only for backing the security law, but freezing the accounts of pro-democracy protesters – including veteran activist Ted Hui – who critics claim are the real target of Beijing’s crackdown. The bank has also been accused of protecting its own interests in Hong Kong, where it employs about 30,000 of its 235,000 global staff and makes more than half its profits.
But Quinn said the bank was not singling out activists, and was merely following police orders as it would in any of its markets, including the UK. “I cannot cherrypick which law to follow,” he said.
MPs pushed Quinn to justify his decision to support the security law, and allow his Asia-Pacific chief executive, Peter Wong, to sign a petition backing Beijing’s new rules. HSBC’s statement at the time said it would “respect and support laws” that would help the territory “recover and rebuild.”
Quinn said on Tuesday that the bank had hoped the security law would restore calm in a city that had faced months of disruption due to pro-democracy protests. “We had to ask 30,000 people to work from home because they were afraid to travel on public transport. Buildings were being firebombed,” he said.
“We believe that it was appropriate to stabilise the security position in Hong Kong,” Quinn added.
The Labour MP, Chris Bryant, claimed HSBC seemed to “adopt a moral stance when it suits you, but not when it doesn’t”.
However, Quinn defended the bank’s decision: “It’s not my position to make a moral or political judgment on these matters, I have to comply with the law.”
He quashed rumours that HSBC may consider splitting its Asian and western operations, or pulling out of Hong Kong entirely, to avoid the reputational damage of being associated with China’s anti-democratic crackdown.
Quinn said pulling out of the territory “would only harm” customers. “I am nowhere near the point at which the challenges Hong Kong faces would even give me any hints or consideration of walking away from Hong Kong. We’re committed to it.”