HSBC is China’s Perfect Victim

The borrowed time appears to have finally run out for both Hong Kong and the UK-headquarter bank that earns most of its money there.

By Mary Hui and cross-posted from Quartz.

In Hong Kong, what you don’t say can often get you into trouble more than what you do.

That’s something UK-based bank HSBC is finding out the hard way, when two weeks ago, Hong Kong’s former leader Leung Chun-ying—who is also a member of China’s top advisory body—took to Facebook and singled out the bank for not publicly supporting a sweeping national security law that Beijing is imposing on Hong Kong. The veiled threat achieved its intended result: a few days later, HSBC threw its weight behind the law.

That belated show of political support seemingly did little to placate pro-China voices. One Chinese academic quoted in nationalistic tabloid Global Times said HSBC’s “late” declaration of support would only be forgiven if it can “show its sincerity… with concrete actions in the future.” A prominent legal scholar penned a piece (link in Chinese) painting HSBC as an imperial British bank: one that reaped profits off of war reparations that China paid the British empire, and one that continues to threaten China’s national security as a close collaborator of Western democracies. This week, Hong Kong’s Communist Party mouthpiece, Ta Kung Pao, ran a front-page story accusing HSBC of “betraying” Chinese tech giant Huawei.

That the history of imperialism is invoked to denounce an international bank’s perceived political reticence does not augur well for HSBC, said Ho-fung Hung, a professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins University. “Beijing can accuse [all old companies] of doing something hurting China a hundred years ago. When this history is brought up, it seems this anger is very hard to stifle.”

HSBC has had a good run in Hong Kong, where it makes much of its profits. But the bank, like the city itself, might be said to have thrived in a borrowed place on borrowed time. Hong Kong was always placeless, international, in flux, a portal to the world. When the territory was handed back to China in 1997, a promise was made that its capitalist way of life, with an independent judiciary guaranteeing broad civil liberties, would continue for 50 years—yet more borrowed time. It was in these conditions that HSBC prospered.

It appears the borrowed time has now run out

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