U.S. slams HSBC over treatment of Hong Kong customers, says China 'bullying' UK

WASHINGTON/LONDON/HONG KONG (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday renewed criticism of British bank HSBC HSBA.L for its reported treatment of customers linked with the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, saying China was "bullying" the United Kingdom.

FILE PHOTO: HSBC logo is seen in the financial district in New York, U.S., August 7, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

Pompeo cited reports of Hong Kong-based executives at Next Media being unable to access their HSBC bank accounts and said the bank was “maintaining accounts for individuals who have been sanctioned for denying freedom for Hong Kongers, while shutting accounts for those seeking freedom.”

“Free nations must ensure that corporate interests are not suborned by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) to aid its political repression,” Pompeo said in a statement.

Next Media is the previous name of Next Digital 0282.HK, publisher of the Apple Daily newspaper and part-owned by democracy activist and media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who was arrested Aug. 10 under Hong Kong's new security law.

While Next Digital’s business account remains open, HSBC has frozen Lai’s personal and private business accounts, as well as the personal and credit card accounts of senior executive Mark Simon, Simon told Reuters.

The bank is still taking loan and credit card payments from the accounts despite the block, Simon said.

A spokeswoman for London-based HSBC declined to comment on Pompeo’s remarks or the allegations made by Next Digital.

A spokesman for Britain’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office said: “We are in close contact with a wide range of businesses in Hong Kong and are working with them on the impact of the national security legislation and related developments.”

China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

HSBC has in recent months faced mounting pressure on both sides of the Atlantic as it attempts to balance its need to maintain access to the Chinese market with appeasing lawmakers in the United States and Britain critical of Beijing’s handling of the democracy movement in Hong Kong.

Senior British and U.S. politicians have criticized HSBC and Standard Chartered STAN.L after the banks backed China's national security law for the territory.

Last month, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab reprimanded HSBC and other banks for supporting the new law, saying the rights of the people of Hong Kong should not be sacrificed for bankers’ bonuses.

Global banks have been examining whether their clients in Hong Kong have ties to the city’s pro-democracy movement, in an attempt to avoid getting caught in the crosshairs of the security law, Reuters reported last month.

Reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington, Lawrence White and Sinead Cruise in London, and Anne Marie Roantree in Hong Kong; additional reporting by Beijing bureau and Juby Babu in Bengaluru; editing by Steve Orlofsky and Rosalba O’Brien