The HSBC chief executive denied taking a political stance on China’s crackdown on Hong Kong, saying the bank was unable to question police demands when it agreed to freeze the accounts of the pro-democracy activists.
Asked Tuesday by members of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Noel Quinn ruled out leaving the Hong Kong market in light of Beijing’s controversial new security laws, saying it “would only hurt” local customers.
In a 90-minute exchange that infuriated many MPs, the boss of HSBC repeatedly refused to comment on issues of “democracy or political systems” and said his main motivation was to help Hong’s economy. Kong and its citizens “to overcome the current challenges”.
The London-based bank has been criticized not only for supporting the security law, but also for freezing the accounts of pro-democracy protesters – including veteran activist Ted Hui – who critics say are the real target of Beijing’s repression. The bank has also been accused of protecting its own interests in Hong Kong, where it employs around 30,000 of its 235,000 employees worldwide and makes more than half of its profits.
But Quinn said the bank was not targeting activists and was only following police orders as it would in any of its markets, including the UK. “I cannot choose 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 supporting Beijing’s new rules. HSBC’s statement at the time said it would “obey and support the laws” that would help the territory “recover and rebuild.”
Quinn said on Tuesday the bank had hoped the security law would restore calm to 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 of traveling on public transport. Buildings were set on fire, ”he said.
“We believe it was appropriate to stabilize the security position in Hong Kong,” Quinn added.
Labor MP Chris Bryant said HSBC seemed to “take a moral stand when it suits you, but not when it isn’t”.
However, Quinn defended the bank’s decision: “It is not my position to pass moral or political judgment on these matters, I must obey the law.”
He quashed rumors that HSBC might consider dividing its Asian and Western operations, or pulling out of Hong Kong altogether, to avoid reputational damage associated with China’s undemocratic crackdown.
Quinn said withdrawing from the territory “will only hurt” customers. “I am far from the point where the challenges facing Hong Kong would even give me clues or consider leaving Hong Kong. We are committed to it. “
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