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Rivals spy weakness in HK’s status as Asia’s prime financial centre

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I recently chaired a panel in which a trio of grandees from Hong Kong, Tokyo and Singapore each staked their city’s claim to be Asia’s premier financial centre. The atmosphere echoed a family game of Monopoly running into its third hour: victory elusive, bonhomie fraying fast and no one quite sure whose turn it is next.

The debate was choppy, as participants navigated waters that have been thoroughly whipped up over the past 18 months, even without the additional disruption of Covid-19. 

Street protests, troubling arrests and the passage of Hong Kong’s national security law in June have entrenched the theory that the former British colony’s status as a financial centre is in structural jeopardy. This may be a strategy by Beijing or the accidental consequence of China’s inexorable political instincts. There is legitimate disquiet among foreign financial institutions in Hong Kong. Their dilemma is not only about unquantifiable risk, constraint and where to draw their lines of tolerance, but how defiant to be when transgressions of those lines are made. 

Despite the chill, the territory’s demise as a financial hub is a theory still awaiting a real test. Hong Kong friends in financial services repeat stories of international moving companies being run off their feet by departures, and they all know of someone or some fund planning to leave. They are circumspect on their own exit plans.

Still, the Hong Kong position in our debate was the most defensive. The eleventh-hour suspension of what would have been history’s biggest initial public offering — the $37bn listing of Ant Group — this month may have a complex and contested origin. But it loomed over the discussion as the great “told you so” signal of Hong Kong’s fast-diminishing mastery of its own fate. 

On the other side, there was little disguising that the question marks over Hong Kong have been seen as opportunities for Singapore and Tokyo. Each have in the last year intensified efforts to lure away both capital and those who control it. Tokyo’s solicitations, which include direct engagement with funds based in Hong Kong, appear significantly better thought-out and supported at a senior political level than its many previous campaigns. Tokyo, where just two of the 2,657 listed stocks on the main market are foreign, has also become more sensible about acknowledging its biggest turn-offs: high tax rates, bureaucracy and language being the most prominent. 

Singapore, meanwhile, has consistently played up safety, its role as a gateway to south-east Asia, its large private banking and wealth management industry and the image of the Monetary Authority of Singapore as a cutting-edge innovator on fintech.

However compelling either the Tokyo or Singapore pitches may be, any exits they induce from Hong Kong now will probably be marginal, the managers of regional funds and other institutions tell me. Anything more significant would require a tipping point that, while now easier to envisage under the national security law, has yet to be reached. 

The truth is that all the real market action is China-related. It is a barbed narrative, but the best one out there. Serious capital and its entourage cannot resist it and will “explore every conceivable workaround to remain in its close orbit before looking at other planets”, says one senior Hong Kong-based fund manager. Many global financial firms have long had operations in Shanghai and Beijing and will decide — grudgingly, but with calculated meekness — that these must become the templates for a continued presence in Hong Kong.

Three days after the panel discussion, 15 nations sealed the pan-Asian Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a trade pact that binds economies representing almost a third of global gross domestic product and draws China, Japan and South Korea into such a deal for the first time. Its implications as a supranational organisation with rules set by consensus and not involving the US are various and vast.

The specific implications for Hong Kong as a financial centre are substantial: a good number of the countries now signed up to RCEP have been browbeaten or bullied by China and have cause for wariness. Keeping the pact functional may demand a lifetime of concessions. In spite of that, the participating nations have chosen — pragmatically — to back RCEP as an embodiment of the Asia narrative with China at its centre. The financial industry is taking a very similar decision vis-à-vis Hong Kong. In both instances, the bet will work — until very suddenly it doesn’t.

leo.lewis@ft.com



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China reaffirms plans to beef up oversight of foreign listings

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Chinese politics & policy updates

Beijing reiterated its intention to strengthen oversight of overseas listings on Friday, capping a volatile week during which contradictory policy signals rocked the share prices of Chinese companies.

At its mid-year meeting, the Chinese Communist party’s politburo stated its determination to “improve” the regulatory framework for companies listing shares overseas. It was the first time the politburo, comprised of the party’s top 25 officials, had specifically addressed the issue.

Chinese regulators have been angered by Didi Chuxing’s decision to press ahead with a $4.4bn initial public offering in New York last month, despite their concerns about the ride-hailing group’s data security practices.

Senior party and government officials have subsequently vowed stricter oversight of overseas listings, which will now require clearance from the country’s internet regulator. Didi’s shares have plunged as other Chinese companies cancelled or delayed plans to list outside of the country.

Investor confidence in Chinese tech companies was further dented on Monday when Beijing revealed draconian new rules for the country’s booming private education sector. The share prices of New York-listed tutoring companies collapsed, after which a senior securities regulator sought to reassure financial executives that Beijing was not seeking to ‘“decouple” Chinese companies from US and other overseas markets.

The comments by Fang Xinghai, vice-chair of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, on Wednesday helped stop a broader sell-off of Chinese shares. But they were not enough to prevent a more than 20 per cent monthly decline in US-listed Chinese tech companies.

Chinese officials have shown no sign of reining in their crackdown of the country’s largest tech groups for alleged violations of monopoly and data security laws.

Separately, China’s transportation ministry on Friday signalled an intensification of the measures against Didi and other ride-hailing groups. It said in a statement that companies in the sector must improve compliance over network and data security management to better protect customers’ personal data. Stronger supervision of antitrust practices, as well as improved rights of workers in the sector, was also needed, it said.

The statement did not name specific companies but noted that the government’s transport sector oversight is being directed by President Xi Jinping.

The Chinese government is conscious that the campaigns against tech and education companies could dent already fragile private sector confidence as the government tries to boost slowing economic growth.

Liu He, a Chinese vice-premier and the country’s top economic and financial official, sought to reassure representatives of small and medium-sized enterprises on July 27, acknowledging that they were the “main source” of employment. “The Chinese economy will do well only if SMEs do well,” he added.

While China has rebounded strongly from the Covid-19 pandemic, officials have been concerned by slowing infrastructure investment — an essential driver of the world’s second-largest economy. The politburo suggested it would encourage more fiscal spending and local government debt issuance to accelerate economic growth.

The Chinese government has also struggled to contain a new outbreak of Covid-19’s Delta variant, which has spread across the country from an airport in eastern China.

Additional reporting by Edward White in Seoul



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More questions than answers in a Hong Kong courtroom

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Hong Kong politics updates

Leaving Hong Kong’s district court last week, I saw a group of pro-Beijing people waving the Chinese national flag. They had a handwritten banner saying: “Injustice waiting to be undone.”

In July 2019, more than 100 white T-shirt-clad men armed with metal rods indiscriminately attacked pro-democracy protesters, journalists and commuters in Yuen Long station. The incident shocked Hong Kongers to their core.

Last week, seven of the so-called “white shirts” attackers were sentenced to between three and a half and seven years for rioting and wounding. Friends and families of the victims sat in the public gallery. They were joined by supporters of the white-clad men. An old man carrying the red flag into the public gallery cried, “This is unjust. We have to report the case to President Xi Jinping.”

But for many people, the Yuen Long incident was one of the darkest moments during the 2019 Hong Kong anti-government protests.

I was on the streets that day, covering the protesters when they defaced Beijing’s main office in the territory — the first time they had targeted an important symbol of the national government. As the police tear-gassed the area, a protester told me to go to Yuen Long. It was the first I had heard of the incident.

Police officers arrived at the scene late, despite numerous emergency calls, and a nearby police station shut its gate. The alleged police inaction, both on that day and afterwards, has fuelled public distrust of law enforcement.

“Such unscrupulous mass lynching has caused great panic among the citizens and the court must impose a deterrent sentence on the perpetrator,” said Judge Eddie Yip as he read out his judgment. “The passengers’ defences were only a few umbrellas and a few brave young bodies standing at the front,” Judge Yip added.

However, to the victims, the public and even the defendants, the tough sentences have not resolved public discontent, and many questions remain unanswered. For example, despite arresting 63 people related to the case, no mastermind behind the attack has been identified and only eight white-shirts have been brought to court. By contrast, police have arrested thousands of pro-democracy activists, including alleged leaders such as Jimmy Lai and Joshua Wong.

A victim who tried to protect a journalist, and who was hit in the mouth during the attack, told the FT: “If we can’t find out who directs this, who’s involved and bring them to the public, the court is not going to solve this, nor [be] able to help in solving this.”

The wife of Tang Wai-sum, who was sentenced to seven years for his part in the attack, organised a press conference against the “harsh” judgment. “My husband is only an ordinary villager, a small-business owner,” she said. He was only there to “protect his home”.

Alex Yeung, a pro-Beijing YouTuber, sat next to Mrs Tang at the press conference. “The judge is ‘yellow’,” he said, pounding the table angrily. He was referring to the colour used by pro-democracy groups. “I hope the national security law and the independent commission against corruption will investigate this judge.”

The victim who was hit in the face, who was also a witness in the case, said: “both sides are asking for truth: the protesters want to know who directed this, the villagers [locals in Yuen Long] or pro-Beijing people are also making clips they say reflect the ‘truth’. So we need to have an institution to lay out the facts and find all the things behind [it].”

Attempts to find out the truth have been hindered. Bao Choy, a journalist who investigated police conduct during the attack, was convicted and fined for the criminal offence of making false statements.

At one point the police attempted to define the incident as a “mass fight” and “conflict” between “people with different political beliefs” instead of an attack. Seven other people, including former legislative councillor Lam Cheuk-ting, who was injured by the attackers, have been charged with participating in a riot. This trial has been adjourned to 2023.

One court may have made a decision about what happened at Yuen Long, but many people feel the truth is yet to be revealed.

nicolle.lui@ft.com



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Beijing seeks to ease fears on Wall Street after tech crackdown

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Chinese equities updates

China’s securities regulator has sought to pacify concerns among international investors and banks after tough new restrictions on private education companies sent shockwaves through markets.

Regulators in Beijing held a call with executives from global investors, Wall Street banks and Chinese financial groups on Wednesday night, according to three people familiar with the matter. One of the people said there were about 12 attendees including executives from BlackRock, Fidelity, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan.

The call sought to reassure the groups after China issued an effective ban on the country’s $100bn private tutoring industry at the weekend.

News of the call boosted Chinese shares, which had suffered a punishing week amid a slate of regulatory action. The Hong Kong-listed shares of internet groups Tencent and Alibaba jumped 8.4 per cent and 6.7 per cent, respectively, as the broader Hang Seng Tech index rose 7 per cent.

China’s CSI 300 index of Shanghai- and Shenzhen-listed stocks was up 1.5 per cent, while the tech-focused ChiNext index gained 3.7 per cent.

Line chart of Hong Kong share price (indexed to 100) showing China tech stocks bounce after regulators hold call

One person briefed on the call hosted by the China Securities Regulatory Commission said it showed that the Chinese government was not “completely tone-deaf to international investors’ sentiment”, but added that it did not do much to assuage concerns about future regulatory policies.

“These policies are not coming from the CSRC, they’re coming from much higher up. It’s clear there will be more to come, that’s obvious to everyone,” the person said.

During the call, CSRC vice-chair Fang Xinghai told the international groups China was committed to allowing companies to access capital markets and that the action on education technology businesses was an isolated situation, according to the person.

The person said that a number of people asked the CSRC about whether regulators would target the “variable interest entity” structure that many large Chinese tech groups have used to list overseas. However, the questions were not answered definitively, the person said.

The crackdown on private tutoring companies included restrictions on their ability to use the VIE structure, which has also been used by tech companies including Alibaba and Pinduoduo to list in the US. The structure, which is not legally recognised in China, allows global investors to get around controls on foreign ownership in some Chinese industries.

The latest restrictions on tutoring groups prompted worries that regulators could target the structure more widely.

Fang said he was not interested in talking to journalists when contacted by the Financial Times.

One person close to the CSRC said regulators “didn’t expect the policy to have such a big impact on investor sentiment and [are] keen to send the message that it is business as usual . . . but everyone felt the crackdown is too much and there is no regulatory boundary. Investors will have to reprice China risks going forward”.

Regulatory pressure from Beijing on tech groups has escalated rapidly over the past month. Authorities have initiated an overhaul of how Chinese companies list overseas and the country’s cyber security regulator has announced plans to review all overseas listings of groups with more than 1m users on national security grounds.

The new cyber security rules were announced just days after ride-hailing app Didi Chuxing raised $4.4bn in a New York initial public offering last month. Its shares have since fallen 40 per cent.

The actions have prompted a scramble on Wall Street to redirect IPOs of Chinese companies from New York to Hong Kong. The US has not approved a major transaction from a Chinese group since the Didi episode left global investors nursing large losses.

Tencent spooked markets further on Tuesday when it announced it was suspending user registrations for its flagship WeChat app while it upgraded its security technology to “to align with all relevant laws and regulations”.

Chinese state media has sought to put investors at ease in the wake of sharp falls for shares in Shanghai and Shenzhen. An article on Wednesday by Xinhua said the CSRC maintains an “open attitude” on where Chinese companies list.

BlackRock, Fidelity and JPMorgan did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Goldman Sachs declined to comment.

With additional reporting by Edward White and Ryan McMorrow



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