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Political pressure weighs on HSBC over Hong Kong activists

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Having “piles of cash” around the house is not usually an admission a political leader is willing to make.

But Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam revealed late last year that her salary was now being paid in cash after she was targeted by US sanctions and abandoned by international banks.

The US action against Chinese and Hong Kong officials including Ms Lam followed Beijing’s imposition of a national security law on the territory in June. That not only presented a problem for Ms Lam, but also a compliance nightmare for international banks in Hong Kong.

These banks were effectively forced to choose between access to the US dollar-based financial system and their desire to stay in Beijing’s good books by keeping open the accounts. They chose the US.

Initially, after informal assurances from regulators that they were unlikely to fall foul of Beijing by cutting off the accounts, banks confidently told investors last year they had managed the conflict.

But the freezing of a bank account of a former pro-democracy lawmaker over the new year has shown the compliance problems are only getting more fraught for the banks, particularly for HSBC, which is a dominant provider of retail banking in the territory.

Hong Kong’s police requested that HSBC, the bank’s subsidiary Hang Seng and Bank of China freeze accounts owned by Hong Kong pro-democracy lawmaker Ted Hui and his family. Mr Hui, who has fled the city for the UK, was out on bail over charges relating to his role in the 2019 anti-government protests.

Pro-democracy campaigner Ted Hui, right, has fled Hong Kong for the UK © Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty

The uproar over Mr Hui’s accounts pinged from Victoria Harbour to Westminster, where there were calls for the bank to be denounced and its executives hauled before parliament.

“[HSBC] has behaved in a disreputable and appalling way in freezing the accounts of an individual fleeing for justice. Surely this is an outrage that the government can now say should stop,” said Iain Duncan Smith, a Tory MP and China critic. Mr Hui has urged the international community to sanction financial institutions that he believes are complicit in Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong.

Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, had previously accused HSBC in August of aiding China’s “political repression” in Hong Kong.

However, regulation experts in Hong Kong say there were few alternative options for HSBC.

“It’s completely normal to freeze the account of someone accused of crimes,” Douglas Arner, a law professor and financial regulation expert at the University of Hong Kong, said. “In this case . . . it is a crime sufficient to get a freeze.”

Nick Turner, a compliance expert at Steptoe, said banks risk being held liable under local money laundering laws if they ignore police requests.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s police and prosecutors have stepped up their crackdown on the city’s pro-democracy opposition. Two high-profile activists, Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow, were sent to prison last month. Separately, Jimmy Lai, the media entrepreneur and outspoken critic of Beijing, was detained by police and charged with fraud in early December over a dispute involving his office lease.

Weeks after his accounts were frozen, Mr Hui — a constant presence at 2019’s protests — also found that his and his families’ HSBC credit card accounts had also been closed. Mr Hui told the Financial Times that the bank did not “want to do business with me, with politicians and the family of politicians”.

HSBC said: “We are unable to comment on matters concerning specific accounts. We have to abide by the laws of the jurisdiction in which we operate and this case is no different.”

Lawyers say banks are increasingly incentivised to avoid offering services to any Hong Konger who could get them into hot water.

One compliance officer at an international bank in Hong Kong said employees are so worried that they try to avoid having their name attached to decisions on individual accounts considered political, even attempting to get closure decisions signed off offshore. “We are all on edge,” the officer said.

With Hong Kong’s police targeting the commercial and financial interests of activists, and their critics in the UK and US just getting louder, HSBC’s political problems are far from over.

primrose.riordan@ft.com



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Australia’s treasurer warns global stimulus threatens financial stability

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Australia has warned that unprecedented global stimulus efforts during the coronavirus pandemic are creating financial stability risks that will only intensify when interest rates inevitably rise.

Canberra has also defended tough new foreign investment rules that have led to a collapse in Chinese investment, arguing the number of proposed deals motivated by strategic, rather than purely commercial gain, was increasing.

Josh Frydenberg, Australia’s treasurer, said the Pacific nation was in a strong economic position as its net debt to gross domestic product was about half that of other advanced economies, even as it begins unwinding fiscal stimulus.

“There is no doubt elevated debt levels will create challenges for many countries. While global interest rates are low those debt levels can be serviceable — but there will be a time when the monetary policy settings change,” he told the Financial Times.

Frydenberg’s comments on the risks posed by global stimulus followed a similar warning delivered last week by Peter Costello, a close political ally and former Australia treasurer.

Australia will be among the first advanced economies to taper off Covid-19 fiscal stimulus with the closure of its A$90bn (US$70bn) JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme this month.

Canberra has argued that the recovery is already under way, citing a fall in unemployment to 6.4 per cent in January and a 3.3 per cent economic expansion in the three months to September last year.

Frydenberg, who counts Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan among his role models, said the government’s A$250bn stimulus was required to stabilise the economy during the pandemic. But he said JobKeeper, which supported 3.6m workers at its peak, was no longer needed as the recovery could be supported by tax cuts, which were announced last year.

Asked if he thought the economic policies of Thatcher and Reagan were still relevant, he said: “[Reagan and Thatcher] achieved a lot when they were in office and they were committed to lower taxes. They were committed to cutting regulation and that’s certainly what I’ve been committed to as well.”

But trade unions and businesses that are still suffering as a result of border closures and restrictions, particularly in the tourism and entertainment sectors, have warned that the scheme’s closure will dent the economy.

“JobKeeper should be extended for those businesses that are still affected by coronavirus. [Through] no fault of their own, they are suffering that downturn,” said Sally McManus, secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, last week. “And we say that because that will save jobs.”

Josh Frydenberg, Australia’s treasurer, is a rising star in the country’s conservative government and is tipped as a future prime minister © AP

Frydenberg, who was the architect of foreign investment rules aimed at countering rising Chinese influence, said he made no apologies for putting “national interest” at the heart of Australia’s investment policies.

Chinese investment fell 61 per cent last year to A$1bn, down from A$2.6bn in 2019 and a peak in 2016 of A$16.5bn, data showed. Frydenberg was instrumental in blocking two potential deals: China Mengniu’s A$600m bid for Japan-owned Lion Dairy and China State Construction Engineering Corp’s A$300m bid for Probuild, a South Africa-owned construction company.

“We absolutely reserve the right to make decisions around foreign investment based on national interest and having put in place an explicit national security test allows us to do that,” he said.

“Increasingly we’ve seen foreign investment proposals that have been motivated not by purely commercial gains but more strategic ones. When those foreign investment proposals potentially compromise the national interest, then we reserve the right to say no.”

Frydenberg said Australia was not alone in tightening its rules, noting that other countries shared Canberra’s views on national sovereignty and foreign investment.

“Obviously we have had some challenges with China,” he said when asked about Beijing’s imposition of trade sanctions on a range of Australia’s exports following Canberra’s call last year for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19 in Wuhan.

Frydenberg insisted that Australian ministers were prepared to sit down with their Chinese counterparts to discuss the bilateral relationship but only on a “no conditions attached” basis.

“It is a mutually beneficial trading relationship — we supply the bulk of their iron ore and that iron ore has helped underpin their economic growth,” he said.

Frydenberg is a rising star in Australia’s conservative government and is tipped as a future prime minister.

Last week, he shot to global attention following several days of negotiation with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg over the social media company’s decision to block news on its platforms in Australia in response to a law forcing it to pay news publishers.

On Friday, Facebook “refriended Australia” and returned news to its Australian platform following amendments that may make it easier for the company to avoid the toughest elements of the law.

“Trying to negotiate with these guys is a bit like playing chess against a chess master,” said Frydenberg, who joked that he spoke to Zuckerberg more than his own wife last week.

“The reality is they are massive companies with huge balance sheets and global reach. If this was easy other countries would have done it [made Big Tech pay for news] long ago.” 



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Ecuador’s exporters caught between US and China after debt deal

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Exporters in Ecuador are worried that their all-important trade with China will suffer as a result of a controversial agreement the US says is aimed at shutting China out of the South American country’s 5G telecoms network.

The agreement, signed by the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and the Ecuadorean government just days before Donald Trump left office in January, envisages the US buying oil and infrastructure assets in Ecuador on the understanding Quito uses the proceeds to pay off its debt to China.

It also obliges Ecuador to sign up to what the Trump administration called the “Clean Network” — a state department initiative designed to ensure that nations exclude Chinese telecoms services and equipment providers as they build out their high-speed 5G mobile networks.

Adam Boehler, the recently departed chief executive of DFC, has described the deal as a “novel model” to eject China from the Latin American nation.

But it has caused unease in Ecuador, which has become increasingly reliant on exports to China.

“The announcement has generated a lot of inquiries and a lot of doubts,” said Gustavo Cáceres, head of the Ecuadorean-China Chamber of Commerce (CCECH). “We hope our authorities handle this in the best way possible so as not to give the impression that we’re turning our backs on China.”

One of the smallest countries in South America, Ecuador has traditionally exported primarily to the US and Europe, but China is fast catching up. Its share of Ecuador’s exports jumped from 3.9 per cent in 2015 to 15.8 per cent. In the same period, the US’s share fell from 39.4 per cent to 23.7 per cent.

The Chinese buy oil, shrimp, bananas, cut flowers, cacao and timber from Ecuador. Last year, despite the coronavirus pandemic, Ecuador’s exports to China grew more than 10 per cent and, for the first time, the country boasted a trade surplus with Beijing.

The shrimp industry has become particularly important. Since 2016, Ecuador’s shrimp exports worldwide have jumped 86 per cent. The nation of just 17.4m people is now the largest exporter of shrimp in the world, having overtaken India last year, when it exported 676,000 metric tonnes of the crustaceans in trade worth $3.6bn. After oil, shrimp were the country’s most lucrative export commodity.

Over half of that went to China, which, with its expanding middle class, is acquiring a taste for seafood once seen as a luxury.

“China will remain our main market,” forecast José Antonio Camposano, president of Ecuador’s National Chamber of Aquaculture (CNA), which oversees the industry. “We need a smart approach to China. A market of 1.4bn people with the acquisitive power that the Chinese have? I’m a businessman, how can I say no to that?”

The CNA was sufficiently worried by Ecuador’s agreement with the US that it sent a three-page letter to Ecuador’s president Lenin Moreno reminding him of China’s buying power.

While the letter did not mention the DFC deal directly, it urged Moreno — who in his four years in power has shifted Ecuador’s axis away from Beijing and towards Washington, reviving relations with the IMF and renegotiating the country’s debt to bondholders — “to reinforce with senior Chinese leaders the point that the excellent relationship between Ecuador and China remains intact”.

Freshly caught shrimp being packed into containers in Ecuador in 2011
Ecuador’s shrimp industry has fed a growing appetite among China’s expanding middle class © Bloomberg

China’s ambassador to Ecuador, Chen Guoyou, said he was unconcerned by the DFC deal and described media reports that it excluded Chinese companies from Ecuador’s telecoms network as “over-interpretation and gratuitous assumption”.

“China respects the sovereign and independent decision of the Ecuadorean government to develop pragmatic, balanced and diverse partnerships with other countries,” he told the Financial Times in an email.

Responding to his comments, one of the former Trump administration officials who negotiated the deal said it had been made explicitly clear in the text that the agreement was contingent on the country participating in the “Clean Network” — which would prevent it from including Huawei or any other Chinese company in its telecoms network.

The future of the deal, and indeed Ecuador’s future relations with China and the US, will depend in part on the outcome of the country’s presidential election on April 11. It pits leftwing economist Andrés Arauz against Guillermo Lasso, a conservative former banker. 

Arauz has the backing of Rafael Correa who took Ecuador out of the US’s orbit and pushed it towards China while serving as president from 2007 until 2017. He broke off relations with Washington’s financial institutions and signed a series of loans-for-oil deals with the Chinese. If Arauz wins the election he is likely to seek support from Beijing and might rip up the DFC agreement, particularly now Trump is no longer in office.

In contrast, Lasso told the FT previously the deal was “a pleasant surprise” and “good news” for Ecuador.

“It’s clear that the US is our principal ally and in my government I would look for an even closer alliance with the US,” he said.



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Brazil virus variant found to evade natural immunity

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The P.1 Covid-19 variant that originated in Brazil and has spread to more than 25 countries is around twice as transmissible as some other strains and is more likely to evade the natural immunity people usually develop from prior infection, according to a new international study.

The research, conducted by a UK-Brazilian team of researchers from institutions including Oxford university, Imperial College London, the University of São Paulo, found that the P.1 variant was between 1.4 and 2.2 times more transmissible than other variants circulating in Brazil. 

It was also “able to evade 25-61 per cent of protective immunity elicited by previous infection” with any earlier variant, the researchers found, in a sign that current vaccines could also be less effective against it.

International concern about the P.1 variant has escalated recently, with more than 25 countries detecting the variant, including Belgium, Sweden and the UK, which has identified six cases.

The scientists are expected to release a paper describing the research on Tuesday. Dr Nuno Faria, the lead author, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The study has not yet been peer reviewed.

The researchers have dated the emergence of the P.1 variant to November 6, 2020, around one month before cases began to surge for a second time in the Brazilian city of Manaus. They found that the proportion of cases classified as P.1 in Manaus increased from zero to 87 per cent in the space of 7 weeks. 

The paper concluded: “Our results further show that natural immunity waning alone is unlikely to explain the observed dynamics in Manaus, with support for P.1 possessing altered epidemiological characteristics.”

“Studies to evaluate real-world vaccine efficacy in response to P.1 are urgently needed,” it added.

The researchers also found that infections were 10 to 80 per cent more likely to result in death in Manaus after the emergence of P.1. However, the authors cautioned that it was not possible to determine whether this meant the variant was more lethal or whether it was a result of increased strain on the city’s healthcare system, or a combination of both. 

The P.1 variant has over 17 mutations, which alter its genetic sequence from the virus originally identified in Wuhan, including 3 key changes to the spike protein that it uses to enter human cells.

Researchers in Brazil have been using genetic sequencing technology developed by Oxford Nanopore in the UK to identify and track the variant. The technology was first used in Brazil during the Zika outbreak in 2015.

Dr Leila Luheshi, director of applied and clinical markets at Oxford Nanopore, told the Financial Times that while the B.1.1.7 variant in the UK has similar properties of high transmissibility to P.1 — it is thought to be around 1.5 times as transmissible as variants that preceded it — there was no evidence to date that it evaded past natural immunity in the same way. Studies so far have also shown that current vaccines retain their efficacy against B.1.1.7.

Luheshi said that the concern with P.1 is that “because it has these mutations around the spike . . . the hypothesis is that the vaccine will be less effective.” But she added that there is not yet definitive evidence to support this theory. 



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