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Hong Kong firms face uncertain future amid rising tensions

Lucy Burton
Protesters gather outside an HSBC building in Hong Kong last Friday

The escalating showdown between China and the US is a battle that HSBC and Standard Chartered’s UK investors would rather the FTSE 100 lenders stay out of.

As tensions between the world's two largest economies rise, the hope is that bank bosses avoid being drawn into the latest row while keeping Beijing on side behind the scenes. 

The latest flashpoint is a security law that China wants to impose on Hong Kong to tackle "terrorism" and "separatism" but has drawn international outcry over fears the former British colony's freedoms are coming to an end. 

Donald Trump said the law, which criminalises anti-government movements in Hong Kong, means the territory is no longer sufficiently autonomous from China to warrant special treatment. 

Tensions have risen this week after a vigil marking the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 was cancelled due to coronavirus, leading Amnesty International to accuse the police of exacerbating tensions ahead of the "disastrous" security law. 

In the UK, seven former foreign secretaries have urged Boris Johnson to lead a global response on the issue.

In the financial community all eyes have turned to HSBC, Europe's biggest bank, which was founded in Hong Kong in 1865 to support international trade between China and Europe and was this week downgraded by Jefferies from "buy" to "hold" because of its exposure to the unrest. The lender makes almost all its profits in Asia. 

"If the bank says something it's going to upset someone but I imagine they're in talks behind closed doors. [HSBC chairman] Mark Tucker is very well connected in China from his AIA days," says one HSBC investor. "All we know is Hong Kong and China is absolutely fundamental to their business."  

Keeping quiet won't be easy, however. Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing former leader, on Friday demanded that HSBC state its position on the matter after enjoying privileges in the territory “which should not be taken for granted” and warning that its business “can be replaced by banks from China or other countries overnight”.  

“We need to let … British companies such as HSBC know which side of the bread is buttered,” he wrote on Facebook.  

The crisis is yet another threat to Hong Kong's status as a financial hub and its “one country, two systems” status that has for years attracted global businesses. After a year of anti-government protests and rising concerns about China’s tightening grip on the territory, business leaders are starting to lose patience. 

Rory Green, China economist at TS Lombard, says if the US goes ahead and changes its relationship with Hong Kong then he could see businesses shifting their operations out of the territory in the longer term. "Hong Kong's status as a financial centre will undoubtedly diminish, to the benefit of Shanghai, Singapore and probably London," he adds. 

Riot police guard detain a protester as a second reading of a controversial national anthem law takes place in Hong Kong, Wednesday, May 27, 2020

However those on the ground say opinion is divided about the new security law as some see it as a way to restore stability. Shares in Hong Kong and mainland China also rose on Monday after investors were relieved that while Trump vowed to end America's special treatment for Hong Kong their trade deal was left intact. 

Benjamin Quinlan, who runs consultancy Quinlan & Associates, said the sectors that have been heavily affected by the protests such as food and beverage, retail and tourism are more likely to welcome the new security law "especially in terms of attracting Chinese tourists and overall foot traffic". 

"Many of the current risks are reputational in nature, so sensitive businesses like financial services, or any business prone to the shock of a protest, will likely be cautious around their public positioning to avoid potential backlashes," he adds.

"You'll probably see businesses align to different interest groups that best support their bottom line - Chinese clients might gravitate more towards Chinese and European banks [vs US and UK]. The fact is, opinions in the city still remain very polarised."