Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – The Hong Kong government has invited Wall Street celebrities to a summit to show that the financial hub is open for business after nearly three years of quarantine due to epidemic containment. Instead, the attendance of senior bank officials at the meeting became a lightning rod for criticism of China’s human rights record, as participants faced pressure to either talk about Hong Kong’s waning freedoms or to stay at home. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists and US legislators accuse the authorities of using the investment summits of global financial leaders to illuminate the brutal political repression that has transformed once free-spirited territory into an unacceptable state. About 200 financial representatives representing leading financial institutions such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan Chase, UBS and BlackRock will attend the summit held from November 1st to 3rd. During the event, bankers will share the stage with Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee, one of many Hong Kong officials facing US government sanctions for their role in repression. Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee is facing U.S. sanctions for involvement in the political repression of opposition on Chinese territory. [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]
On Friday, both U.S. MPs Jeff Merkley and Jim McGovern, Democrats, risked bankers being “committed” to a crackdown in a former British colony that promised rights and freedoms that did not exist in mainland China as a condition of return. warned that there is Since the Chinese government introduced an all-out national security law in response to violent anti-government protests in 2019, authorities have eliminated virtually all political opposition, curtailed civil society and shut down independent media. More than 210 people, including lawmakers, journalists and union leaders, were arrested under the law and colonial anti-riot laws for crimes primarily related to speech. More than 10,000 people have been arrested on charges of involvement in the 2019 protests for crimes ranging from riots to illegal assemblies. “These bankers were blacklisted by the US and could not even open a checking account for Hong Kong CEO John Lee, who was banned from traveling to the US,” said Mark Clifford, a former Hong Kong newspaper editor who now heads the committee. The Hong Kong Freedom Foundation (CFHK) told Al Jazeera. “The International Financial Center relies on the free flow of information and the freedom of the rule of law,” Clifford added. “Hong Kong is no more. It is not worth taking seriously in the international financial community,” he said. The Hong Kong government rejected criticism of the human rights record and the summit on Saturday, accusing Western governments of trying to “repress” the nominally autonomous region and China. In a statement to the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, the organizer of the summit, he said: By harnessing the power of finance, we contribute to the well-being of our global community.” JPMorgan Chase, UBS, Man Group and Brookfield declined to comment. Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, BlackRock, HSBC and Standard Chartered, along with other participants, did not respond to requests for comment. Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon was one of the top bankers attending the Global Financial Leader’s Investment Summit in Hong Kong. [File: Jason Lee/Reuters]
The controversy surrounding the Hong Kong summit highlights the awkward position faced by companies that seek to monetize China’s growing economic opportunity while raising its voice on social justice issues and human rights. The dispute also highlighted how reluctant large corporations were to avoid China, the world’s second-largest economy, rather than smaller economies such as Russia, North Korea and Myanmar, which are accused of human rights abuses. Despite ignoring calls to skip the Hong Kong summit, JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs were among the major companies forced to withdraw from Russia following the invasion of Ukraine. Other Russian-shunning global brands, such as Nike and Volkswagen, have resisted calls to close operations in China’s Xinjiang province, where ethnic Uyghurs face mass detention and surveillance. Surya Deva, a business and human rights expert at Macquarie Law School in Sydney, Australia, said that the corporate world’s aspiration to maintain ties with China is not surprising, as businesses are “rational and often opportunistic actors.” “They will be attending the Hong Kong summit because they see the benefits outweigh the risks of doing business in Hong Kong and China,” Deva, who previously worked at the City University of Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera. “Businesses are increasingly being forced to protect human rights due to a variety of ‘push and pull’ factors,” says Deva. “But these factors are not the same in all places and in all circumstances. For example, it may be easier for companies to leave Myanmar than in China.” Hong Kong government hopes upcoming banking summit will signal that the financial hub is open for business [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]
Some human rights experts have suggested that bankers can bring the situation to Hong Kong by speaking up at the summit without staying at home. Last week, CFHK projected images onto a building in New York’s financial district as part of a smashing advertisement aimed at the summit, urging executives to “speak up” if they were to travel. Professor Justine Nolan said, “It’s not about the obvious issues like attendance or boycotts, it’s about how management is exercising their influence and raising their voices to see how Hong Kong’s rule of law is breaking down.” The University of New South Wales (UNSW), which studies the intersection of business and human rights, told Al Jazeera. “For example, officers may be present but choose not to or issue a public statement on concerns and relate their absence to concerns about human rights and the rule of law in Hong Kong.” So far, the banks have never expressed any intention to get involved in politics, but two executives withdrew for reasons unrelated to the controversy. Barclays said CS Venkatakrishnan will no longer travel to Asia due to schedule changes after Citigroup CEO Jane Fraser announced the cancellation on Monday after testing positive for COVID-19. Nolan said Wall Street may prefer to remain silent on the debate, but businesses will find it harder to draw the line between business and human rights. “Look at the pressure from the companies sponsoring the upcoming World Cup to donate to a fund to compensate the losses suffered by migrant workers at the forefront. Look at the pressure that Adidas has to respond and take action on their relationship with Kanye West,” she said. “Business has changed, and public companies and brands no longer have the luxury of turning to environmental and human rights abuses,” she said.
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