While many Hong Kong bankers have worked from home over the past few days or otherwise tried to avoid the protests in Central, some financial professionals have given up their lunch hours to join demonstrations that have paralysed streets surrounding HSBC, Goldman Sachs and other global firms.
Joining a midday flash-mob in Central obviously isn’t as dangerous as being barricaded inside Polytechnic University surrounded by armed police. In theory, banking professionals can beat a hasty retreat from police and return to their nearby offices unnoticed. Nevertheless, the risk of being arrested remains and carries potentially dire consequences for bankers’ careers, given Beijing’s influence over the Hong Kong banking sector.
Hundreds of office workers in Central donned face masks and left their desks last week to show solidarity with the student-led protest movement. They chanted pro-democracy slogans, blocked roads and by Friday some were helping create a channel for black-clad protestors to run through.
A banker we spoke with in Hong Kong says while not “that many” banking professionals took part in last week’s white-collar lunchtime protests, those that did were people who felt “very passionate” about the political crisis engulfing Hong Kong. Another professional in Central says the people who left banks to join the protests were mainly in their 20s or early 30s. “It’s not the senior guys,” he adds.
Explaining why he got involved in a midday demonstration, a 32-year-old finance professional told local media that, “some values in the community cannot be only measured in terms of money”.
Some banking professionals did their best to disguise their participation in the Central protests, worried about a backlash from workmates who don’t support the pro-democracy movement or its tactics. “I don’t think my colleagues would agree that I left work to come here,” a young employee from a Chinese bank told Time. “I left my heels on so I can just take off the mask and be a normal worker again,” she said.
Dealing with disgruntled colleagues may be the least of your worries, however, if taking part in a rally in Central leads to your arrest. The Citi director arrested after a scuffle with police last week was reportedly leaving work in the evening and does not appear to have been caught up in a demonstration. Citi is still investigating the case, but his apparent lack of involvement may potentially spare him from severe disciplinary action or dismissal, says a former HR director in Hong Kong.
Bankers arrested during an actual protest (last week’s gatherings in Central were not sanctioned by police) may not be so lucky. “I think it’s just going to be examined by banks on a case by case basis,” says Benjamin Quinlan, a former UBS banker who now runs a finance consultancy in Central. “If you’re charged with any illegal act, be it rioting or not, then a major financial institution is likely to look at your employment situation.”
Citi has told staff to steer clear of dangerous places after the arrest of its banker, and other firms have issued similar warnings.
Moreover, pressure from the Chinese government could potentially make it even more difficult for a bank to stick up for any employees who are arrested (rightly or wrongly) for rioting. Beijing has plenty of leverage over global banks, because many of them are competing with each other to grow onshore as China liberalises its financial system. More banks are expected to apply for control over their mainland joint ventures, following the lead of UBS, JP Morgan and Nomura, which have recently been granted majority stakes.
“There’s already an oversupply of banks in China, so Beijing is in the box seat. You can just imagine what China could do to a bank that’s seen as overtly supporting the protest movement,” a senior banker told us previously. “Management at banks don’t want to be at the helm when the People’s Bank of China says, ‘screw you, there goes your China licence’. It would be career suicide,” he added.
Beijing has already brought pressure to bear on airline Cathay Pacific, which earlier this year barred aircrew who had supported the protests from operating flights to mainland China, following the sacking of employees for leaking information and the flight-suspension of a pilot charged with rioting.
Image credit: LewisTsePuiLung, Getty
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