HSBC tried to defend itself in China. Internet censors erased the post

July 28, 2020, 9:00 PM UTC

On Friday, China’s largest state-run newspaper, the People’s Daily, accused HSBC, the London-based bank, of conspiring with U.S. authorities to build a case against Huawei, the Chinese telecom equipment giant.

On Saturday, HSBC defended itself against the allegations via the company’s public account on WeChat, a ubiquitous Chinese messaging platform. By Monday, however, censors had deleted the post, replacing it with a notice that it had violated China’s Internet regulations.

HSBC has long enjoyed deep ties to China, yet the recent allegations from pro-Beijing press and the run-in with Internet censors support a growing body of evidence that the bank is finding it increasingly difficult to operate there.

Under pressure

The People’s Daily accusation against HSBC is related to Huawei and the case of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer and daughter of Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei.

In December 2018, Canadian authorities arrested Meng in Vancouver at the request of the U.S. Department of Justice for allegedly helping Huawei secretly conduct business in Iran and violating U.S. sanctions. Huawei and Meng have denied the allegations, and Meng remains under house arrest in Canada while fighting extradition charges to the U.S.

In an article published on Friday, the tabloid claimed that new evidence in court hearings showed that HSBC had “maliciously framed” Meng and “fabricated evidence” that led to her arrest in Canada.

Without directly citing the People’s Daily article, HSBC on Saturday posted a statement on its WeChat account in China denying the allegations that it had conspired with the U.S. government to set up Meng.

The bank said that while it had cooperated with the DOJ and handed over information about its dealings with Huawei, the bank simply presented “objective facts” to abide by American laws.

“HSBC does not have any hostility towards Huawei and did not ‘frame’ Huawei,” the post said. “HSBC did not ‘fabricate’ evidence or ‘hide’ facts. And HSBC would never distort the facts or seek to harm any of our clients for our own gain.”

“Violating” the rules  

Censors appear to have removed HSBC’s statement. The link for the post now takes users to a page that says that the post “violated regulations” and cannot be viewed. The redirect does not specify which regulation the post violated, but it links to the Cyberspace Administration of China’s rules for public accounts in China.

Included in the 18 provisions are the stipulations that WeChat accounts must promote “core socialist values,” reflect “correct public opinion orientation,” and safeguard national interests.

HSBC did not respond to a request for comment. A representative for WeChat said the company had “no comment” on the matter.

China’s online censors monitor mainland social media—which the government uses to shape public opinion—and expunge dissenting or otherwise objectionable posts. China has the most sophisticated Internet controls in the world, with an apparatus to block foreign websites like Facebook, Google, and Twitter, as well as tools to monitor and control online discussions and behaviors on Chinese platforms.

Posts by multinational corporations usually are mundane and seldom catch censors’ attention, says King-wa Fu, a media studies professor at the University of Hong Kong who runs a project called WeChatScope that tracks censorship of public WeChat accounts. Such firms “practice strict self-censorship on WeChat to avoid drawing the ire of the Chinese authorities,” said Charlie Smith, who oversees censorship tracking platform and goes by a pseudonym.

HSBC’s post, meanwhile, pushed the boundaries of corporate WeChat decorum by directly challenging the official Chinese narrative on a touchy subject—and the censors responded in kind.

Chinese authorities see Meng’s arrest as a direct affront to the central government, with Chinese media often depicting her as a heroic victim of American bullying.

In 2018, Fu’s WeChatscope tracked 4,000 public WeChat accounts that disseminated daily news posts. Of the 1.04 million posts by such accounts that year, censors blocked roughly 11,000. The story of Meng’s arrest in Canada was one of the most-scrubbed topics.

The recent escalations in Meng’s case, as well as the rising tensions between the U.S. and China, likely caused censors to erase HSBC’s post, Fu said, though the ambiguous language of the censorship notice makes it difficult to discern a motive. Government censors, an Internet service provider, and WeChat itself all have the capability to remove content, he said.

Trouble in Hong Kong

HSBC’s Huawei post is not the first bank missive on WeChat to stir controversy, though earlier posts didn’t attract censors.

On June 3, HSBC shared a photo on WeChat of HSBC Asia-Pacific chief executive Peter Wong signing a petition in support of Beijing’s new national security law in Hong Kong. At the time of the post, pro-Beijing officials were pressing businesses in Hong Kong to back the law, even as foreign governments criticized it for eroding freedoms in Hong Kong.

Despite Wong’s pledge of allegiance, his support for the law failed to quell nationalistic critics in China. Days after Wong signed the petition, the state-run tabloid the Global Times said HSBC still had a “lingering ambiguous attitude” toward the law and remained vulnerable to Chinese government “reprisals.” On June 9, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo decried Wong’s “show of fealty” to Beijing, adding China’s central government was engaged in “coercive bullying tactics” to line up support from firms like HSBC.

In addition to complying with the national security law, HSBC is now one of many banks in Hong Kong grappling with potential sanctions from the U.S. government. On July 14, U.S. President Donald Trump signed the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, which targets individuals involved in the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy and the financial institutions that serve them. For HSBC, complying with the sanctions in Hong Kong may also mean violating the new national security law.

The London-based bank has longstanding ties to Hong Kong and sees itself as an East-West conduit. But rather than bridging the chasm, HSBC appears to be flailing in the middle, unable to please either side.