Lawyers representing the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei allege that HSBC has helped U.S. prosecutors concoct a case that accuses Huawei of breaking U.N. sanctions on trade with Iran. Currently, the Justice Department is seeking to extradite to the United States Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, from Canada, where she has been under house arrest since Dec. 1, 2018.
Moreover, the influential legal scholar Jiang Shigong of Peking University has also accused the bank of supporting the “Five Eyes” intelligence agencies of the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; he says HSBC constitutes a national security threat to China.
So, in reaction, what does the bank do? On June 3, clearly under pressure to show its loyalty to Beijing, the bank deputized its top executive in Asia, Peter Wong, to sign a petition in favor of China’s proposed national security legislation for Hong Kong, even though no one has seen the bill. The only thing known about the legislation is that it will grant China’s secret services the right to operate openly in Hong Kong.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo didn’t react well to Wong’s signature on the petition, accusing HSBC of a “corporate kowtow.” But he had better get used to the genuflection and not just from foreign banks. China’s market is so big and the reach of its security services so broad that today it can demand and even expect a kowtow from almost anyone, anywhere.
Take the case of Zoom, the video-chat app that has grown fantastically during the coronavirus pandemic. In a statement on June 11, Zoom acknowledged that it blocked the accounts of three Chinese dissidents in response to demands from Chinese authorities. Zhou Fengsuo, one of the dissidents whose account was blocked, had planned to host an online commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Those accounts, Zoom said, were ultimately restored.
Like HSBC, Zoom is in a bind. While it is based in San Jose, Calif., and led by a Chinese-born American citizen, Eric Yuan, many of the firm’s research and design personnel work in China. If Zoom had ignored the demand from Beijing, Chinese authorities could easily have made life very difficult for Zoom. Perhaps the electricity would be cut to Zoom’s offices. Or a team of tax inspectors would drop by. Or the relatives of Zoom employees in China might get a surprise visit from Chinese police.
These types of difficult situations are set only to multiply as relations between Washington and Beijing deteriorate and multinational corporations try to navigate the increasingly perilous shoals between the two nations.
China has recently relaxed rules on Western investment banks, and several U.S. firms are expected to increase their stakes in China. In December, J.P. Morgan announced that it received clearance to run a majority-owned securities company in China. More big banks are set to follow J.P. Morgan’s lead.
How will these firms react when Chinese authorities approach them to take a stand on Hong Kong, Taiwan or any other sensitive topic? Beijing no longer views these businesses as simply banks or video-chat companies. Instead, it sees them as vectors of influence. They are either friends or enemies. What will Apple do, for example, when it ultimately is forced to choose between the huge market of China and its home country, the United States?