Gone are the days when HSBC, along with the Jockey Club, ruled Hong Kong, or so the saying goes.
Still, the bank continues to wield considerable influence on Hong Kong affairs.
So, when Laura Cha, a director of the bank, compared Hong Kong protesters to black slaves in their fight for universal suffrage, she sparked a political firestorm.
On Monday, HSBC Group chief executive Stuart Gulliver distanced the lender from Cha’s comment, saying she was speaking in her role as head of the Financial Services Development Council.
He lost no time reaffirming the bank’s commitment to Hong Kong, where it has done business for 150 years.
Gulliver offered a rather generic comment about how the protests might have affected Hong Kong, merely saying it has undergone a “complicated period”.
He did warn that investors would feel threatened if the legal system were harmed.
The ambiguity might have been deliberate but he spoke volumes by not saying a word about a suggestion by his subordinate, Peter Wong, that the Hong Kong dollar be de-pegged from the greenback and tied to a basket of currencies.
Earlier, HSBC made headlines when former Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corp. chairman David Eldon weighed in on the controversy surrounding secret payments by an Australian company to Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.
In a widely followed blog, Eldon wrote that the controversy, more than the street protests, would bring about Leung’s demise.
It has not happened but HSBC has disavowed the comment, saying it does not reflect its own views.
Unlike Eldon, Cha was reflecting official thinking when she made the comment at a Trade Development Council event in Paris.
She compared the long fight for universal suffrage to the struggle of black slaves who took a hundred years before they gained the right to vote.
Given HSBC’s strident disavowals, some people are beginning to wonder whether the comments might have been meant as some kind of trial balloon.
Did Laura Cha just let us in on a China secret that full democracy could in fact take forever? Did Peter Wong pronounce the impending death of the peg? And did David Eldon drop a hint about Leung’s fate?
Interestingly, their comments came around the time that pro-Beijing legislator James Tien said the business sector is not opposed to the idea of allowing company directors to vote for their representatives in the election committee, changing from the existing practice of “one company, one vote”.
This is the same committee that will become the nominating panel for the chief executive candidates in 2017.
However, Tien said it would not be a good idea to grant voting rights to more than 10,000 HSBC employees.
We know, of course, that when he went on to suggest that Leung consider stepping down to resolve the ongoing political conflict, he was sacked from China’s top political consultative body.
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