Bankers blast China’s crackdown on Hong Kong to ‘cry’ | Business and Economic News

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Hong Kong’s government invited Wall Street’s biggest names to a summit to show the financial center is open for business after nearly three years of isolation due to pandemic restrictions.

Instead, the gathering of bank executives has become a lightning rod for criticism of China’s human rights record, as attendees face pressure to speak out about Hong Kong’s disappearing freedoms or stay home.

Hong Kong democracy activists and US lawmakers charge that the authorities are using the Investment Summit of Global Financial Leaders to whitewash a brutal political crackdown that has transformed the once-free territory beyond recognition.

About 200 financial leaders representing the best financial institutions such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase, UBS and BlackRock are expected to participate in the summit, which will take place on November 1-3.

During the event, the bankers will share a stage with Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee, who is among a number of Hong Kong officials under US government sanctions for their role in the crackdown.

Hong Kong’s chief executive John Lee is under US sanctions for his role in the Chinese territory’s political crackdown on dissent. [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

On Friday, US lawmakers Jeff Merkley and Jim McGovern, both Democrats, warned of the risk of being “complicit” in the crackdown in the former British colony, where bankers have been promised rights and freedoms that do not exist in mainland China as a condition of their return. to China’s sovereignty in 1997.

Since Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law in response to violent anti-government protests in 2019, authorities have suppressed virtually all political opposition, silenced civil society and shut down independent media.

More than 210 people, including lawmakers, journalists and trade union leaders, were arrested under the law and the colonial-era anti-sedition law, mostly for verbal offences. More than 10,000 people were arrested for taking part in the 2019 protests for crimes ranging from rioting to unlawful assembly.

“These bankers couldn’t even open a checking account for Hong Kong CEO John Lee, who is blacklisted by the United States and banned from traveling to America,” said Mark Clifford, a former newspaper editor in Hong Kong who heads the Committee. The Hong Kong Freedom Foundation (CFHK) told Al Jazeera.

“International financial centers depend on freedom – the free flow of information and the rule of law,” Clifford added. “Hong Kong doesn’t have any anymore. This does not deserve to be taken seriously by the international financial community.”

Hong Kong’s government rejected criticism over its human rights record and the summit, with No. 2 official Eric Chan on Saturday accusing Western governments of nominally trying to “suppress” the autonomous territory and China.

In a statement to Al Jazeera, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, which organized the summit, said: “We look forward to thoughtful, constructive discussions at the upcoming summit on how the financial sector can manage a complex set of risks and challenges.” use the power of finance to contribute to the well-being of the global community”.

JPMorgan Chase, UBS, Man Group and Brookfield declined to comment. Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, BlackRock, HSBC and Standard Chartered, among others, did not respond to requests for comment.

Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon.
Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon is among the top bankers attending the Global Finance Leaders Investment Summit in Hong Kong. [File: Jason Lee/Reuters]

The controversy surrounding the Hong Kong summit underscores the awkward position faced by corporations trying to cash in on China’s growing economic power, which has also been vocal on social justice and human rights issues.

The controversy has also highlighted how big business has shied away from China, the world’s second-largest economy, more than smaller economies accused of human rights abuses such as Russia, North Korea and Myanmar.

Despite ignoring calls to skip the Hong Kong summit, JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs were on a long list of major companies to leave Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

Other global brands that shun Russia, such as Nike and Volkswagen, have resisted calls to stop operating in China’s Xinjiang region, where ethnic minority Uyghurs face mass internment and surveillance.

Surya Deva, a business and human rights expert at Macquarie Law School in Sydney, Australia, said the corporate world’s desire to engage with China is not surprising because businesses are “rational and often opportunistic actors”.

“They will attend the Hong Kong summit because they see more benefits than risks in doing business in Hong Kong and China,” Deva, formerly of the City University of Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera.

“Businesses are increasingly forced to care about human rights due to various ‘push and pull’ factors,” Deva added.

“However, these factors are not the same in all places and in all situations. For example, it may be easier for companies to leave Myanmar than China.”

Hong Kong skyline.
Hong Kong’s government hopes an upcoming banking summit will signal the financial center is open for business [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Some human rights experts suggested that bankers could use their voices at the summit to draw attention to the situation in Hong Kong rather than stay at home.

Last week, CFHK projected images onto buildings in New York’s financial district as part of a publicity blitz aimed at the summit, urging executives to “speak up” if they were to make the trip.

“It’s not a clear-cut question of whether to participate or boycott, but more about how administrators can use their leverage and raise their voices to express their concerns about how the rule of law is being undermined in Hong Kong,” said Justine Nolan, a professor. The University of New South Wales (UNSW), which studies the intersection of business and human rights, told Al Jazeera.

“For example, an executive may attend but make a public statement about their concerns, or they may choose not to attend and attribute their absence to concerns about human rights and the rule of law in Hong Kong.”

So far, the banks have not indicated any intention to get involved in politics, although two executives have resigned for reasons unrelated to the dispute.

Barclays on Monday said Chief Executive CS Venkatakrishnan will no longer travel to Asia due to changes in his schedule after Citigroup announced last week that its Chief Executive Officer Jane Fraser had tested positive for COVID-19.

Nolan said that while Wall Street would prefer to stay silent on the debate, companies will have a hard time drawing a bright red line between business and human rights alone.

“Look at the coming pressure on companies sponsoring the upcoming World Cup to contribute to a fund to compensate migrant workers for the initial losses; Look at the pressure on Adidas to respond and take action regarding its relationship with Kanye West,” he said.

“Business has changed and public-facing companies and brands no longer have the luxury of turning a blind eye to environmental and human rights violations.”

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