HSBC under pressure to unfreeze accounts of Hong Kong democracy activists

Oscar Williams-Grut
·Senior City Correspondent, Yahoo Finance UK
·4 min read
Photo take on 19 November 2020
Pro-democracy lawmakers, from left; Eddie Chu, Raymond Chan and Ted Hui walk with supporters at a local court in Hong Kong. Photo: Vincent Yu/AP

HSBC (HSBA.L) is facing growing pressure to unfreeze customer accounts linked to pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

50 parliamentarians from around the world have sent a letter to the bank’s chairman Mark Tucker urging him to unfreeze the accounts of Ted Hui, his family, and the Good Neighbour North District church and its leaders. All were involved in the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

The letter has been signed by elected lawmakers from countries including Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany and the UK. 12 British MPs have signed the letter, including former Conservative party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith.

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HSBC froze the accounts of Hui and his family after the former Hong Kong Legislative Council member fled the territory in December 2020. Hui fled to Denmark amid a wider crackdown by China on pro-democracy activism in the region.

The letter from lawmakers, coordinated by the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), also highlighted the freezing of the accounts of the pre-democracy Good Neighbour North District church and its preachers.

Protestors vandalise a HSBC branch in Hong Kong on 1 January 2020. Photo: Lee Jin-man/AP
Protestors vandalise a HSBC branch in Hong Kong on 1 January 2020. Photo: Lee Jin-man/AP

HSBC has said it was acting under the orders of local police and couldn’t challenge their authority.

“I’m not in a position as a banker to be able to judge the motives or the validity of a legal instruction from a law enforcement authority,” chief executive Noel Quinn told UK MPs last month, saying he couldn’t “cherry pick” which rules the bank was bound by.

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The letter from lawmakers said the bank had “failed to give evidence of any court order or warrant.” Parliamentarians said the bank had “compromised clients’ assets and private property rights without regard to the law and due procedures.”

“The incidents above are not detrimental only to Hui and his family’s well being but also gravely tarnish HSBC's reputation as a socially responsible enterprise operating under the rule of law,” the letter said. “These actions undermine the open societies and free economies that underpin HSBC’s success.”

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former leader of the Conservative party, is one of the signatories of the letter to HSBC. Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former leader of the Conservative party, is one of the signatories of the letter to HSBC. Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Parliamentarians called on HSBC to immediately unfreeze the accounts and give a full explanation of its actions.

A spokesperson for the bank said it couldn’t comment on individual clients but said it had already “explained publicly” why some accounts had been frozen.

“Like every bank, we have to operate within the law and legal frameworks of all the countries in which we operate,” the spokesperson said. “When we get a specific legal instruction by police authorities in Hong Kong, or anywhere else, to freeze the accounts of somebody under formal investigation, we have no choice but to comply. Disobeying such an order would be a criminal offence.”

READ MORE: HSBC CEO defends suspension of Hong Kong activists' bank account

HSBC, which has its roots in both Hong Kong and the UK, has found it increasingly difficult to balance the politics of the two regions in recent years. In Hong Kong, the bank has faced pressure to toe the line of the Chinese ruling party, which has greatly expanded its power in Hong Kong in recent years despite fierce opposition. Meanwhile, the bank has been criticised for “kowtowing” to Beijing by both US and UK authorities, who believe the bank is betraying democratic values.

The bank and rival Standard Chartered (STAN.L) outraged Western lawmakers last year after it emerged that senior leaders from both banks had signed a petition in support of China’s Hong Kong security law, which was widely seen as a power grab by Beijing and fiercely opposed by locals.

Shares in the bank were little changed on Monday.

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