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Hong Kong suppresses political dissent by freezing bank accounts

Boycott HSBC campaign image circulated widely on social media.

Hong Kong’s recently enacted national security law has empowered the security police to freeze suspects’ bank accounts during an investigation, which has eroded public trust in the banking system.

In the past few months, there have been several cases which indicate that the banking system is being been weaponized by the national security police in order to crack down on activists and pro-democracy NGOs.

The most controversial case involves the freezing of the bank accounts of exiled Hong Kong legislator Ted Hui and his family members.

Hui, a former pro-democracy lawmaker, declared his exile status during a visit to Denmark for a conference on December 3, after his family had also left Hong Kong. Two days later, on December 5, Hui said that his bank account and those of at least five of his family members had been frozen without explanation by several banks, including HSBC.

The banking giant's actions triggered a public uproar, as members of Hui’s family had not been known to have violated any national security law. Critics said the banks’ had acted on political, not legal, grounds. The bank unfroze the accounts of Hui his family briefly the next day, refroze them again on December 7, after the Hong Kong police issued a public statement accusing Hui of colluding with foreign forces and of using his family's bank accounts for money laundering purposes.

Independent journalist Timothy McLaughlin summed up the Hong Kong police's allegations against Hui as follows:

Ted Hui was originally charged with nine offences that involved disrupting meetings in the Legislative Council, participating in unlawful protests, and deleting photos from the mobile phones of staff of the Legislative Council. None of these charges was linked to the offences listed in the national security law and money laundering, until after Hui announced his exile status.

The police's new allegations pointed to a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to bring a lawsuit against a taxi driver who had driven into a crowd of protesters, and a police officer who shot at a protester in a close range during last year's anti-extradition protests. The crowdfunding campaign was in fact handled by a law firm which has no connection to Hui or members of his family. Hui rebuked the police on Facebook:

This is clearly the regime’s attempt to take political revenge via economic oppression, and to use collective punishment to oppress my family to persecute dissenting voices.

Under the national security, however, the security police are empowered to freeze bank accounts during an investigation without a court order, and there is no existing channel through which affected individuals can appeal such actions.

Despite public concern over this arbitrary exercise of power on the part of the national security police, the Hong Kong government refused to answer questions about whether the ability of the police to demand suspension of bank accounts would undermine public faith in the banking system in Hong Kong, a global financial center.

The latest case involves the suspension of bank accounts belonging to the Good Neighbour North District Church as well as personal accounts of the church’s pastor, Roy Chan, and his wife. Twitter user Karen Tse reported the news after it broke:

The church was established in 2014 and obtained charity status in 2016. Since its establishment, it has provided shelters to homeless people. The church has described the suspension of the church’s sole account as “an act of political retaliation”:

This is no doubt an act of political retaliation. In the past year, our group “Safeguard Our Generation” mainly comprised of middle-aged and elderly volunteers was determined to offer humanitarian aid to protestors at the frontline…

The church urged HSBC to unfreeze its sole bank account, as not doing so would result in the immediate termination of their service to the homeless.

An increasing number of voices on Hong Kong social media are using hashtag the #boycottHSBC to express their distrust of the corporate giant.

In August, HSBC froze the personal bank accounts of Jimmy Lai, founder of Apple Daily, and other top management of the popular newspaper's parent company Next Digital, following their arrests over national security, fraud and other alleged offences.

In June 2020, prior to the enactment of the national security law, the Hong Kong Association of Banks issued a statement in support of the legislation, claiming that the law would foster a stable business environment. Global banking giants HSBC and Standard Charter followed suit and issued their own statements of support.

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