By Simon Clark 

U.K. lawmakers accused HSBC Holdings PLC Chief Executive Noel Quinn of appeasing China and ignoring the erosion of democracy and rule of law in Hong Kong, where the bank was founded nearly 156 years ago.

A parliamentary committee questioned Mr. Quinn on Tuesday after the London-based bank supported China's imposition of a new security law on Hong Kong last year. China has said the law was necessary to restore order after a year of protests in the city. The U.K. and U.S. governments opposed it, saying it undermined an agreement to give Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy after the British handed the city back to China in 1997.

Labour Party lawmaker Chris Bryant said some might see HSBC as "aiding and abetting one of the biggest crackdowns on democracy in the world." Mr. Quinn said he was "not going to comment on democracy" because he's a banker, not a politician.

"I also care deeply about Hong Kong," Mr. Quinn told the lawmakers. "I can only do what I do as a bank, and as a CEO of a bank, to continue to support our customers. We have done that through Covid. We have done that through this unrest and I am committed to continuing to help the people of Hong Kong. So I have that same passion and concern for Hong Kong as you do."

Mr. Quinn said the security situation in Hong Kong was out of control before the security law was introduced.

"I, with my colleagues, personally witnessed the destruction that was taking place," he said.

Earlier this month, Hong Kong police arrested more than 50 pro-democracy figures they accused of plotting to paralyze the Hong Kong government through the city's legislature. The move targeted much of the opposition camp's leadership and was the biggest sweep using the national security law since its introduction.

Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, asked Mr. Quinn why HSBC had frozen accounts of Hong Kong democracy activists.

Mr. Quinn said HSBC hadn't decided as a policy to freeze bank accounts of Hong Kong activists and didn't drop customers or freeze accounts for political reasons.

"To the extent that we have frozen accounts it's because we're obliged to under request from the police authorities as they undertake their investigations," he said.

HSBC froze the bank accounts of Ted Hui, a democracy campaigner and former Hong Kong lawmaker who has sought exile in the U.K., the day after he fled the city in December.

"I do not accept his explanation about freezing my accounts and my family's accounts," Mr. Hui said in an interview. "I am not convinced that HSBC was left with no choice."

Earlier this month Mr. Quinn took the unusual step of writing directly to Mr. Hui to explain the bank's actions, according to a Facebook post the campaigner made that included a screenshot of the email.

HSBC didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Bob Seely, a Conservative U.K. lawmaker, said HSBC talked about helping the environment and improving workplace diversity but didn't want to discuss democracy in Hong Kong.

Mr. Quinn said climate-change mitigation and promoting diversity were both the right thing for the bank to do for commercial reasons. "What I am reluctant to do is to talk about the politics or the political-architectural regimes of one country versus another because I operate in 60 countries," he said.

He said the bank's Chinese operations wouldn't be separated from its business covering the rest of the world, adding that such a move wouldn't benefit Hong Kong or the U.K.

"I believe that we do good as an international bank," Mr. Quinn said.

Write to Simon Clark at simon.clark@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 26, 2021 23:38 ET (04:38 GMT)

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