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Helena Morrissey attacks HSBC's attempts to 'ingratiate' bank with Chinese Communist Party

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A pedestrian shields himself from the rain as he walks past an HSBC ad in Hong Kong
A pedestrian shields himself from the rain as he walks past an HSBC ad in Hong Kong

HSBC bosses are sacrificing democracy to ingratiate themselves with the Chinese Communist Party by backing a crackdown on freedom in Hong Kong, Dame Helena Morrissey has said.

The London-headquartered bank should never have backed the decision to introduce a controversial security law criminalising anti-government movements in the former British colony, she said.

The bank has since frozen the bank accounts of activists, including pro-democracy politician Ted Hui, following orders from Hong Kong police.

She also turned her fire more generally on businesses which champion their ethical credentials while still investing heavily in China, comparing doing business in the country with money laundering or financing drug dealers, given its treatment of political opponents and oppression of the Uighur Muslim minority group.

Speaking at the Conservative Party Conference, Dame Helena said: "Top [HSBC] management are trying to ingratiate themselves with the CCP, freezing assets of Hong Kong democratic campaigners".

Dame Helena Morrissey City financier - Andrew Crowley
Dame Helena Morrissey City financier - Andrew Crowley

"[HSBC is] saying that they are abiding by the rules, obeying orders, but surely if there is one thing we have learnt through history, it is that this is no defence. These are lines which cannot be crossed."

The bank, which makes most of its money in China, has said repeatedly that it has to comply with laws in every jurisdiction where it operates.

Dame Helena, a veteran fund manager who is now chairman of the investment company AJ Bell, added that it is "time to talk about “investor hypocrisy and the need for investors to rethink their dealings in areas where there are clear human rights abuses”, including China.

She criticised the City fad in which businesses seek to champion their so-called environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) credentials, saying: "The fact is that ESG has often just been interpreted as the E for environment. But there is nothing to suggest … that human rights are less important than climate change.”

Investing in China and other dictatorial states cannot be reconciled with ESG principles, Dame Helena said. She said: "There are tough anti-money laundering laws to stop the financing of terrorism and drug dealing, even if that might be very lucrative… but institutional investors, the signatories to the UN Principles for Responsible Investment, are today investing in countries that are known to be abusing human rights.”

Her speech coincided with the launch of an 84-page report by Hong Kong Watch, a pro-democracy advocacy group which uses HSBC as a case study of "corporate hypocrisy".

Dame Helena said she had been working with the bank on a "number of issues on diversity and inclusion, and the people I am working with are among the most committed on that issue". It is not known exactly what her role is with the bank.

HSBC declined to comment.

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