Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – The Hong Kong government has invited the biggest names on Wall Street to a summit to show the financial hub is open for business after nearly three years of isolation due to pandemic curbs.
Instead, the presence of senior bank executives at the rally has become a lightning rod for criticism of China’s human rights record as attendees are pressured to talk about the disappearance of freedoms in Hong Kong. or stay at home.
Hong Kong democracy activists and U.S. lawmakers accuse authorities of using the Global Financial Leaders Investment Summit to whitewash a brutal political crackdown that has turned the once-freewheeling territory beyond recognition.
About 200 financial executives representing major financial institutions, including Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase, UBS and BlackRock, are expected to attend the summit, which will be held from November 1-3.
During the event, the bankers will share a stage with Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee, who is among a number of Hong Kong officials under US government sanctions for their role in the crackdown.
On Friday, US lawmakers Jeff Merkley and Jim McGovern, both Democrats, warned that bankers risked being ‘accomplices’ in a crackdown in the former British colony, which had been promised rights and freedoms that did not do not exist in mainland China as a condition of his return. to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
Since Beijing introduced a sweeping national security law in response to violent anti-government protests in 2019, authorities have eliminated virtually all political opposition, muzzled civil society and shut down independent media.
More than 210 people, including lawmakers, journalists and labor leaders, were arrested under colonial-era anti-sedition law and statute, primarily for speech-related crimes. More than 10,000 people were also arrested for their involvement in the 2019 protests for crimes ranging from rioting to unlawful assembly.
“These bankers couldn’t even open a checking account for Hong Kong CEO John Lee – who was blacklisted by the United States and banned from traveling to America,” said Mark Clifford, a former editor of a newspaper in Hong Kong who now leads the committee. for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation (CFHK), told Al Jazeera.
“International financial centers depend on freedom – free flow of information and rule of law,” added Clifford. “Hong Kong no longer has either. It does not deserve to be taken seriously by the international financial community.
Hong Kong’s government has dismissed criticism of its human rights record and the summit, with No 2 official Eric Chan accusing Western governments on Saturday of trying to ‘suppress’ the nominally self-governing territory and China .
In a statement to Al Jazeera, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, the organizer of the summit, said: “We look forward to constructive and thought-provoking discussions at the upcoming summit on how the financial sector can manage a complex set of risks and challenges and harnessing the power of finance to contribute to the well-being of the global community.
JPMorgan Chase, UBS, Man Group and Brookfield declined to comment. Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, BlackRock, HSBC and Standard Chartered, among other participants, did not respond to requests for comment.
The controversy surrounding the Hong Kong summit highlights the delicate position faced by companies seeking to take advantage of China’s growing economic opportunities while simultaneously taking vocal positions on issues of social justice and human rights. man.
The dispute also underscored how big business has often been more reluctant to avoid China, the world’s second-biggest economy, than smaller economies accused of human rights abuses, such as Russia, North Korea and the United States. Myanmar.
Despite ignoring calls to skip the Hong Kong summit, JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs were among the long list of major companies to leave Russia following its invasion of Ukraine.
Other global brands that have shunned Russia, such as Nike and Volkswagen, have resisted calls to halt operations in China’s Xinjiang regionwhere ethnic minority Uyghurs were subjected to mass internment and surveillance.
The business community’s desire to stay engaged with China is unsurprising as corporations are “rational and often opportunistic actors”, said Surya Deva, a business and human rights expert at Macquarie Law School. from Sydney, Australia.
“They will attend the Hong Kong summit because they see more benefits than risks in doing business in Hong Kong and China,” Deva, who was previously based at the City University of Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera.
“Businesses are increasingly compelled to care about human rights for a variety of ‘push and pull’ factors,” Deva added.
“However, these factors are not the same for all places and in all situations. For example, it may be easier for companies to leave Myanmar than China. »
Some human rights experts have suggested that bankers, rather than staying at home, could use their voices at the summit to draw attention to the situation in Hong Kong.
Last week, CFHK, as part of its publicity blitz aimed at the top, projected images onto buildings in New York’s financial district urging executives to “speak up” if they make the trip.
“It’s not as clear cut an issue as assist or boycott, it’s more about how leaders can use their influence and raise their voices to show concern about how the state of law in Hong Kong is eroding,” Justine Nolan, a professor at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) who studies the intersection of business and human rights, told Al Jazeera.
“For example, a leader may attend but make a public statement about their concerns or choose not to attend and associate their absence with concerns about human rights and the rule of law in Hong Kong.”
The banks have so far given no indication of their intention to get involved in politics, although two executives have pulled out citing non-controversial reasons.
Barclays said on Monday chief executive CS Venkatakrishnan would no longer travel to Asia due to changes in his schedule, after Citigroup announced last week that chief executive Jane Fraser had canceled due to testing positive for COVID-19.
While Wall Street may prefer to remain silent on the controversy, companies will only find it harder to draw a bright red line between business and human rights, Nolan said.
“Look at the pressure on companies sponsoring the next World Cup to contribute to a fund to compensate migrant workers for the losses they suffered during the preparation; look at the pressure on Adidas to respond and act on their relationship with Kanye West,” she said.
“Business has changed and companies and brands open to the public no longer have the luxury of turning a blind eye to environmental and human rights abuses.”