The HSBC chief executive defended the British bank’s actions in Hong Kong, including backing a controversial national security law and freezing activist accounts, as British politicians accused him of ” approve ”the erosion of Chinese democracy in the city.
Noel Quinn was told his bank was “helping and encouraging one of the world’s biggest crackdowns on democracy” by Labor MP Chris Bryant during a parliamentary foreign affairs committee hearing on Tuesday.
The director general had been summoned to explain a decision of freeze accounts of former Hong Kong lawmaker Ted Hui, who was arrested in November last year during a protest outside the city’s legislature. Mr. Hui had received a letter this month from Mr. Quinn explaining that the bank had acted at the request of the Hong Kong police.
Mr Quinn told MPs that he was “not in a position, as a banker, to judge the motives or the validity of [a] legal instruction of a law enforcement authority “, nor was it” for him to “pass moral or political judgment on these matters”.
He added that HSBC had not acted out of fear of the consequences of disobeying some clients’ request to freeze funds, but that “as CEO, I cannot choose which law to follow or not.”
During an often tense hearing, the deputies accused HSBC of being “judge and jury” of its customers in connection with clashes between demonstrators and police on the territory.
Lawmakers also questioned why HSBC had refused to take a moral stand on the treatment of the people of the former British colony, despite growing calls for businesses to behave responsibly and the lender having previously expressed opinions on issues such as climate change.
In recent years, HSBC, which makes about two-thirds of its profits in Hong Kong, has been caught in the middle growing geopolitical tensions between the UK and China as Beijing intensified its crackdown.
The lender was criticized by the US, UK and shareholders last year when its chief executive in Asia, Peter Wong, publicly approved a controversial national security law imposed by Beijing on Hong Kong.
Speaking to lawmakers, Mr Quinn denied that Mr Wong’s decision to sign a petition in favor of the security law was a political act. “Peter was not advocating any particular party or policy,” he said.
Quinn also backed a statement he made last year, which “called for the stabilization of the security position in Hong Kong.”
HSBC was founded in Hong Kong 155 years ago, but moved its headquarters to London when it bought Midland Bank in 1992.
Mr Quinn acknowledged that he was “troubled by the challenges Hong Kong has faced over the past two or three years” and that working with some governments around the world can be “extremely difficult”.
When asked if there would be a time when he would be ready to get away from Hong Kong on geopolitics and changes to the legal system, however, the managing director said the bank was “far from near that point” and was “too committed as an institution through our heritage and history” .
“We are not in Hong Kong just because of profit. . .[and]it is not for me to choose China over another political system like the United Kingdom, ”he added.
“We try to stay out of the politics of one country over another. . . there is no benefit to me or HSBC in leaving the Hong Kong community at this time. I would only harm Hong Kong, not help it. “