Hong Kong bankers advised to keep a low profile as city’s crisis escalates

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Hong Kong bankers advised to keep a low profile as city’s crisis escalates

Banking professionals in Hong Kong have been reminded in recent days of the possible consequences of expressing strong opinions in public about the ongoing civil unrest in their city.

In late September, BNP Paribas lawyer Jason Ng quit the bank after his Facebook post, which criticised pro-Beijing supporters, was the subject of a backlash on the mainland. On Friday, a JP Morgan employee, believed to be a private banker, was punched by an anti-government protester outside the firm’s Chater House office. The banker had been surrounded by photographers, and by protestors shouting “Go back to the mainland”. He had responded to them in Mandarin, at one point saying “We are all Chinese”. One Hong Kong banker told us it was unclear whether he was referring loosely to people of Chinese descent or (more provocatively) to citizens of China.

The facts of these two incidents are obviously very different, but they both highlight how difficult it is becoming for finance professionals to take a public stance on either side of Hong Kong’s  current crisis. BNP Paribas, worried that its reputation would be damaged in China, was quick to issue a statement saying that Ng’s remarks did not reflect the bank’s views.

While Ng has said he deliberately chose to prioritise activism over his career, some people in the finance sector are becoming less inclined to speak their minds as clashes between police and protestors become increasingly violent and the Hong Kong government adopts more aggressive and authoritarian tactics.

Irrespective of the relative merits and demerits of joining, participating in a peaceful gathering (such as the flash mobs of Hong Kong finance professionals that occasionally assemble in Central) hasn't impacted any careers. But making attributable statements on social media looks increasingly provocative. “Nobody I know in banking wants to be publicly quoted supporting either side – they fear the consequences,” says a Hong Kong banker-turned headhunter.

Expressing strong opinions for or against the democracy movement unfortunately “seems dangerous” in the current political climate, says a Hong Kong-based finance professional. “You just need to look at Facebook or Twitter to see the barrage of abuse received for making your voice heard,” he adds.

The outcome is that people in finance are effectively prevented from sharing their views. It’s best to “stay neutral”, advises Benjamin Quinlan, a former UBS banker who’s now a consultant in Hong Kong. “There’s a dynamic of professionalism that banks expect staff to uphold. Many banks would likely ask employees to avoid making public comments on the Hong Kong situation, regardless of their political stance,” he adds.

And if you feel a need to express an opinion? Think about how you word it “very carefully", says Quinlan, observing how "emotionally charged the political situation is" now. “Everything you say publicly will ultimately reflect on your image, which can have follow-on consequences for how the bank you work for is perceived. The more senior you are, the higher this onus is likely to be,” he adds.

Businesses in Hong Kong are treading a fine line. Those that are seen as being pro-Beijing (including Starbucks and Yoshinoya) have been boycotted by protestors. On the other hand, some firms (most notably Cathay Pacific) have ignited Chinese anger for the involvement of their staff in the anti-government movement.

Some finance professionals are protesting all the same, but are trying to mitigate the risks of doing so. “If you want to make a point on a collective non-violent basis, there are still plenty of peaceful events you can attend,” says another banker. “You don’t necessarily need to get your own name out and potentially put your career on the line.”

Image credit: Annie Spratt, Unsplash

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