Wall Street accused of whitewashing China crackdown in Hong Kong

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US activists and lawmakers say the banking summit is being used to legitimize the dismantling of city liberties.

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Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – The Hong Kong government invited Wall Street’s most famous people to the summit to show that the financial center is open for business after nearly three years of lockdown due to the pandemic.

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

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Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists and US lawmakers have accused authorities of using the World Investment Summit of financial leaders to whitewash the brutal political crackdown that has reshaped the once-free territory beyond recognition.

The summit, which will take place November 1-3, is expected to be attended by about 200 financial leaders representing leading financial institutions, including Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase, UBS and BlackRock.

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

Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee is under US sanctions for his role in the political crackdown on dissent in China. [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

On Friday, U.S. lawmakers Jeff Merkley and Jim McGovern, both Democrats, warned that bankers risk being “accomplices” in crackdowns in the former British colony, which was promised rights and freedoms not found in mainland China as a condition of its return. to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

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

More than 210 people, including legislators, journalists and labor leaders, were arrested under the law and the colonial-era anti-riot law, mostly for speech-related offences. More than 10,000 people were also arrested for participating in the 2019 protests for crimes ranging from riots to illegal gatherings.

“These bankers could not even open a checking account for Hong Kong chief executive John Lee, who was blacklisted by the US and banned from entering America,” said Mark Clifford, a former newspaper editor in Hong Kong who now chairs 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 no longer has either. The international financial community does not deserve to be taken seriously.”

The Hong Kong government dismissed criticism of its human rights record and the summit, and No. 2 spokesman Eric Chan on Saturday accused Western governments of trying to “crush” the nominally autonomous territory and China.

In a statement to Al Jazeera, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, the organizer of the summit, said: “We look forward to thought-provoking, constructive discussions at the upcoming summit on how the financial sector can manage a complex set of risks and challenges and seize opportunities finance to promote 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 was among the leading bankers attending the Global Investment Summit of Financial Leaders in Hong Kong. [File: Jason Lee/Reuters]

The controversy surrounding the Hong Kong summit highlights the awkward position that corporations find themselves in, seeking to cash in on China’s growing economic opportunities while also taking a proactive stance on issues of social justice and human rights.

The dispute also highlighted how big business is often more reluctant to avoid China, the world’s second largest economy, than smaller countries 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 are on a long list of big companies leaving Russia because of its invasion of Ukraine.

Other global brands shunning Russia, such as Nike and Volkswagen, are resisting calls to cease operations in China’s Xinjiang, where ethnic minority Uyghurs have faced massive internment and surveillance.

The desire of the corporate world to maintain a relationship with China is not surprising since businesses are “rational and often opportunistic players,” said Surya Deva, a business and human rights expert at Macquarie Law School in Sydney, Australia.

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

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

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

Skyline of Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong government hopes the upcoming banking summit will signal that the financial center is open for business [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Some human rights experts have suggested that the bankers, instead of staying at home, could use their vote at the summit to draw attention to the situation in Hong Kong.

Last week, CFHK, as part of its summit promotion, projected images onto buildings in New York’s financial district, urging executives to “speak up” if they do go.

“This is not as straightforward a question as a visit or a boycott, but rather a question of how leaders can use their leverage and raise their voice to raise concerns about how the rule of law in Hong Kong is being undermined.” – Justine Nolan, Professor University of Hong Kong. The University of New South Wales (UNSW), which studies the intersection of business and human rights, told Al Jazeera.

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

So far, the banks have not given any indication of any intention to get involved in politics, although two executives have opted out, citing reasons unrelated to disagreements.

Barclays on Monday said CEO K.S. Venkatakrishnan will no longer travel to Asia due to changes to his schedule, after Citigroup announced last week that CEO Jane Fraser had canceled a trip due to testing positive for COVID-19.

While Wall Street may choose to remain silent on the issue, Nolan said it will be increasingly difficult for companies to draw the bright red line between business and human rights.

“Look at the pressure on companies sponsoring the upcoming World Cup to contribute to the fund to compensate migrant workers for the losses they suffered in the run-up; look at the pressure on Adidas to react and take action on their relationship with Kanye West,” she said.

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

Credit: www.aljazeera.com /

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