HSBC and Standard Chartered’s recent decisions to give their backing to China’s controversial new national security law for Hong Kong are not going down too well with some of their employees in the territory. But Hong Kong-based staff at the two banks are generally wary about publicly challenging their employers over the politically charged issue.
One HSBC banker, who asked not to be named, says he and many of his local colleagues oppose the security legislation because they think it undermines Hong Kong’s autonomy. But while he will continue to express these opinions in private, he will not do so in the office and will not make any comments about HSBC’s new position. Another insider at the bank says HSBC’s policy is now “too political” to discuss openly.
Peter Wong, HSBC’s Asia Pacific CEO, signed a petition in support of China’s proposed law, according to a post on the bank’s official WeChat account yesterday. HSBC supports rules that stabilise Hong Kong’s social order and revitalise its economy under the ‘one country, two systems’ principle, said Wong's statement.
“This statement may annoy some HSBC employees, but bankers run the risk of being sidelined – especially in the current tough market – if they’re seen to overtly protest against it,” says former HSBC banker Rahul Sen, now a headhunter at search firm Boyden.
Earlier today Standard Chartered, which like HSBC makes most of its profit from Asia, issued a similar statement: “We believe the national security law can help maintain the long-term economic and social stability of Hong Kong. The ‘one country, two systems’ principle is core to the future success of Hong Kong and has always been the bedrock of the business community’s confidence.”
A Stan Chart employee told us that, despite his personal reservations about the law curtailing freedoms in Hong Kong, the bank’s decision makes sense from a business perspective. “Stan Chart’s and HSBC’s support was inevitable and a sensible business move,” adds a trader-turned headhunter in Hong Kong.
Still, the two banks will not have made their decisions lightly. Both are headquartered in the UK, whose government has condemned the security law. HSBC branches in Hong Kong were vandalised by pro-democracy campaigners last year after it closed an account linked to the protest movement.
But Greater China remains the largest market for revenue at both banks, and the one with the most enticing growth prospects. New HSBC CEO Noel Quinn is doubling down on Asian expansion at the expense of Europe. Stan Chart and HSBC have little to gain from not supporting the Chinese and Hong Kong governments as they implement the security law.
By contrast, US and European banks whose operations are not primarily focused on Asian markets have chosen to remain neutral for now rather than support or oppose the legislation, which criminalises acts of subversion against the government and is part of China’s response to the 2019 protests.
We contacted several Western banks in Hong Kong – including Citi, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs and UBS – all of whom declined to comment on the national security law.
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