When HSBC Chairman Mark Tucker reportedly claimed the bank’s business could face reprisals in China if the British government were to ban Huawei’s equipment from the construction of the country’s next-generation 5G telecoms networks, the bank appeared to be sliding into a political rift between China and the UK.
The HSBC chairman’s warning to Downing Street is farfetched and absurd, and seems more like a political statement than a business comment. It is unprofessional for a financial institution to make such imprudent comments. Whether or not HSBC will face any so-called retaliation in China depends not on what the British government does, but hinges on the bank’s own behavior – if it abides by Chinese laws, industry rules and professional ethics.
It is true that the Johnson government last week approved plans to seek alternatives to Huawei in its 5G network, which has cast a shadow over China-UK relations which were already strained due to the latter’s interference in Hong Kong affairs. But we haven’t seen anything to justify China taking countermeasures against HSBC over Huawei’s potential 5G block in the UK, especially after HSBC has already come out in support of China’s national security legislation for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
It is a basic principle that businesses should stay away from political disputes as they have neither the ability nor the experience to handle the resulting situations. That principle applies to HSBC, which has put itself in an awkward position underscoring its lack of political wisdom. The bank is seen by some people in China as being untrustworthy due to its alleged involvement in Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou’s arrest in Canada.
Indeed, as one of three commercial banks licensed to issue Hong Kong dollar banknotes, HSBC has played an important role in Hong Kong’s financial system. But it still should be advised to avoid being labeled a keen political participant. Dragging itself into political spin runs counter to the financial industry’s code of conduct, and any such attempt will backfire.
Whatever the UK’s decision on Huawei, it is unlikely to be the reason for HSBC faces pressure in China, as long as the bank is not involved in political disputes. However, its clients may shun the bank to reduce their risk exposure if they see the bank cannot adhere to business principles. Maybe that’s the real “retaliation” HSBC will face for its political involvement.