My Take

Blame Washington not Beijing for problems opening a bank account

Political agitators like artist Ai Weiwei complain about difficulties when trying to open an account at HSBC, but the bank is simply following American rules

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 April, 2017, 1:01am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 April, 2017, 1:01am

What do Ai Weiwei, Joshua Wong Chi-fung and Agnes Chow Ting have in common? It’s funny how political agitators like to round on poor HSBC and claim persecution when they can’t open a bank account in Hong Kong.

But really, it’s not Beijing you guys should complain about, but the United States – you know, your beloved country that you run to for free publicity and red-carpet treatment. The British-Hong Kong bank has been making it difficult for everyone – people and companies – to open new accounts. But no, it has nothing to do with political pressure from Beijing. It’s the result of worldwide compliance standards imposed by regulators in New York and Washington.

HSBC’s new compliance rules require clients to provide more account information

Ai ridiculed the “one country, two systems” principle this month after saying HSBC refused to open an account for him at its headquarters in Central. Really, Ai, even some locals have trouble opening accounts with the bank. It’s doubly difficult if you are not a Hong Kong resident. And weren’t you convicted of tax evasion?

A year ago, Wong and his comrade-girlfriend Chow also had difficulties opening an account for their political party. It wasn’t that they were refused; rather they declined to offer more information when asked.

In 2012, HSBC was fined US$1.9 billion for breaches over money laundering for drug gangs by its branches in Mexico. It escaped prosecution by agreeing to install new anti-money laundering procedures. The agreement may end this year but could be extended at the pleasure of US regulators and prosecutors.

I hate big banks like HSBC as much as the next guy, and much prefer smaller local banks that usually offer a nicer personal touch. But the real issue is not even about Hong Kong or Beijing, but America, where regulators have come up with the perfect extortion-cum-cost-saving scheme.

‘It’s not going to get easier’: HSBC boss warns even stricter regulations loom for new accounts

Fine foreign banks billions of dollars for money laundering and aiding terrorism, then outsource monitoring and surveillance of drug smugglers and terrorists to those same banks. And then, Washington complains international banks so targeted are becoming too unfriendly to clients, especially American expatriates. The Americans could do it because every major global bank has to have a presence in the US.

Ai, Wong and Chow, you want to complain? Fly to Washington and make a fuss. See if those American politicians would still roll out the red carpet.