A group of British lawmakers are launching a “full international inquiry” into British banks in Hong Kong to establish whether some may have contributed to “suppression” in the city.

A HSBC branch in Mong Kok. Photo: GovHK.

The inquiry aims to investigate whether any UK banks operating in the city have contributed to “suppression by the Hong Kong government, its police and its justice system” of freedoms of expression, of movement, of assembly and association, and of right to enjoy property, said the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong, in a statement on Wednesday.

Risks to the UK

The inquiry will also look into whether the banks’ actions in the city may create risks to the UK and the impact that the national security law may have on banks in Hong Kong.

These banks benefit from the UK government’s commitment to the rule of law and respect for human rights, and as such these are principles they should be expected to uphold when conducting their business abroad,” co-chairs Alistair Carmichael, a Liberal Democrat, and Natalie Bennett from the Green Party, said.

Pro-democracy protest by Hongkongers in London. File Photo: Lei_UK, via Instagram.

Formed in November 2019, the informal group does not have any official status in the British parliament but is run by members of the House of Commons and House of Lords. Although it lacks the power to summon witnesses, the group said it welcomes submissions of evidence with examples of actions taken by British banks.

Several Hong Kong activists have complained of British banks freezing their assets or denying them access to their Mandatory Provident Fund pension savings before they fled to the UK using the British National (Overseas) visa scheme, the group said.

Former lawmaker of the Democratic Party Ted Hui, who fled to Australia by way of Denmark and the UK, said in December that his personal – as well as his wife and parents’ HSBC bank accounts – were frozen at the request of Hong Kong police. Police said the funds were frozen in connection with a money laundering probe.

Ted Hui leaves the UK for Australia. File Photo: May James/HKFP.

Public relations firm Whitehouse Communications is tasked with the inquiry’s administration. The company also represents Stand With Hong Kong, the pro-democracy lobbying group based in the UK that is now linked to activist Andy Li’s national security case.

HKFP has reached out to Standard Chartered for comment. HSBC declined to respond.

In June 2020, Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – bypassing the local legislature – following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure. The move gave police sweeping new powers, alarming democrats, civil society groups and trade partners, as such laws have been used broadly to silence and punish dissidents in China. However, the authorities say it has restored stability and peace to the city.

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Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.