Pro-democracy demonstrators sit on a road divider during a protest in July near the HSBC building in Hong Kong
Pro-democracy demonstrators sit on a road divider during a protest in July near the HSBC building in Hong Kong © Bloomberg

HSBC and Standard Chartered have broken their silence on the anti-government protests that have rocked Hong Kong in recent months, calling for a peaceful resolution to the crisis in full-page advertisements in local newspapers on Thursday.

HSBC — which takes its name from Hong Kong and Shanghai, where it was founded 154 years ago — has sought to appear neutral as the protests have intensified. But it has been put in a challenging position because of its reliance on Hong Kong, which accounts for about half of its profits, and its aggressive strategy for expansion in China.

Beijing has ratcheted up the pressure on international businesses that operate in Hong Kong and mainland China to take a pro-government stance and fire employees that have shown support for the protests.

Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s flagship airline whose second-biggest shareholder is Air China, replaced its chief executive last week under pressure from Beijing.

The HSBC advertisements, published in five local-language newspapers on Thursday, said the bank was deeply concerned about the recent events and “condemned violence of any kind”, adding that the rule of law is vital to maintaining Hong Kong’s status as a financial centre. “That is why we fully support the ambition to resolve the present situation peacefully.”

An internal memo sent to HSBC staff on Thursday morning and seen by the Financial Times said the bank would not issue an advertisement in English. However, it did not directly answer the question of whether the advertisements were published under pressure from the Chinese government. “We are not changing our apolitical stance,” it said.

China has been at the centre of HSBC’s plan for global growth since 2015, particularly in the country’s southern province of Guangdong that borders Hong Kong. The bank is one of the largest in mainland China in terms of branch numbers and its corporate clients include many of the country’s largest state-owned enterprises.

But in recent weeks, the company has found itself under increasing pressure from Beijing. Some Chinese leaders blame HSBC for a US Department of Justice probe into Huawei and the arrest of the telecom group’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Canada. John Flint, who was ousted as chief executive this month, was summoned to the Chinese embassy in London to explain the company’s role in Ms Meng’s detention and prosecution.

StanChart’s advertisement called for an end to the violence, and a return to order. “We resolutely support ‘one country, two systems’, and support the special administration government in its effective maintenance of social order and security,” it said.

The risks of not falling in line with Beijing were laid bare last week when Cathay replaced Rupert Hogg as chief executive. The move followed accusations from China’s aviation regulator that the carrier put flight safety at risk after a number of Cathay’s employees allegedly took part in the protests.

Mr Hogg’s departure came after Swire Pacific, the principal shareholder of Cathay, said in a statement: “We condemn all illegal activities and violent behaviour, which seriously undermine the fundamental principle of ‘One Country, Two Systems’,” referring to the framework under which Hong Kong is governed that affords the city a high degree of autonomy from Beijing. Swire added that it “resolutely” supports the city’s government.

PwC, EY, Deloitte and KPMG all published contrite statements after China expressed its displeasure at employees of the professional services companies demonstrating.

Additional reporting by Ravi Mattu in Hong Kong

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