By David Brunnstrom and Michael Martina
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Influential U.S. lawmakers have demanded that one of the world’s biggest banks, HSBC Holdings Plc, explain its actions in freezing accounts of Hong Kong pro-democracy activists, moves that could leave it liable to severe sanctions under U.S. law.
The bipartisan group of six senators and seven members of the House of Representatives from the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, made the call in a letter sent on Monday to Noel Quinn, group chief executive of HSBC, which has its headquarters in London.
“We are writing to raise questions and concerns about HSBC’s business practices in Hong Kong and globally, including restrictions placed on the accounts of American citizens and the freezing of accounts of Hong Kong activists, independent media, and civic groups,” the lawmakers, led by CECC chairs Senator Jeff Merkley and Representative Jim McGovern, wrote.
The letter, released by CECC on Thursday, referenced a public pledge of support in 2020 by then HSBC Asia Pacific’s chief executive, Peter Wong, for a draconian National Security Law China imposed on Hong Kong.
“Since his statement in June 2020, the Hong Kong authorities have put almost the entirety of the city’s opposition figures behind bars and denied bail to most,” the letter said.
“The government further disqualified and arrested previously elected legislators and district councilors, and went on to rewrite electoral rules to allow only ‘patriots’ fully vetted by the national security police to run in future elections.”
HSBC had also frozen bank accounts of activists, independent media, and civic groups, many of which were forced to close or end operations, it said. The lawmakers said they had been told that accounts of U.S. citizens had been restricted, including at HSBC branches in the United States, and this required “immediate rectification” if true.
The letter added that holders of British National (Overseas) passports had been denied the ability to withdraw pension funds from HSBC when leaving Hong Kong for Britain, “which raises questions whether HSBC is aiding and abetting the government’s policy to restrain exit.”
The letter called on HSBC to justify its actions and to state whether they were taken at the request of Hong Kong authorities or Chinese officials.
“We are in receipt of the Commission’s request and will work to address their questions,” Matt Ward, the head of communications at HSBC Bank USA, told Reuters in an email.
“Like every bank, we are required to operate within the law and legal frameworks of all the countries in which we operate,” Ward said.
Hong Kong and Chinese authorities say the National Security Law has brought stability to the city after mass anti-government protests.
The 2020 U.S. Hong Kong Autonomy Act requires mandatory sanctions on persons and entities that directly undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy and secondary sanctions on banks that do business with those entities and persons.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Michael Martina in Washington; Editing by Matthew Lewis and David Gregorio)