Mon, Dec 09, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Hong Kong bankers say territory’s divide is infecting office life

By Vinicy Chan, Alfred Liu and Kiuyan Wong  /  Bloomberg

An economist says he was pushed out of his job at a Chinese bank in part due to his views on the effect of Hong Kong’s protests.

A brokerage employee in the territory is looking for a new job because she disagrees with her bosses’ politics.

An investment banker says he avoids talking to most colleagues about the unrest, fearing it might damage his career.

At financial firms across Hong Kong, personal political views that used to have little bearing on work are taking on new significance, as the territory’s pro-democracy protests harden opinions on both sides of the debate.

For some in the industry, it is making an already difficult business environment even tougher to navigate and fueling concerns about Hong Kong’s future as one of the world’s premier financial hubs.

The change is being felt most acutely at state-owned Chinese financial companies, where several backers of the protests say they fear retribution from superiors if they are found to attend rallies or otherwise support the pro-democracy movement.

Law Ka Chung (羅家聰), former chief economist at Bank of Communications (Hong Kong), has gone public with his concerns, saying on Tuesday last week that he suspects he was ousted in part because his research contradicted the Chinese government’s narrative on Hong Kong.

While global banks operating in the territory are more insulated from local politics, they are not immune. At BNP Paribas SA, a legal executive left the company in September to focus on activism after social media posts on his personal account led to the bank issuing a public apology.

In Citigroup Inc’s Hong Kong office, some pro-Beijing staff are now socializing less frequently with their pro-democracy counterparts, with the rift becoming more apparent in the wake of a widely circulated video of one of the firm’s investment bankers being arrested after a scuffle with police, employees familiar with the matter said.

The employees, who asked not to be named, as they were discussing a sensitive subject, emphasized that in most cases the differences of opinion have yet to get in the way of work.

When a JPMorgan Chase & Co banker from mainland China was filmed being punched during his lunch break after shouting: “We are all Chinese” at a crowd of yelling protesters, several employees complained verbally to their managers about his behavior, a person with knowledge of the matter said.

It is not clear from the video what initially sparked the confrontation, and there is no indication it was connected to his employer.

Conversations between some JPMorgan staff from mainland China and their peers from Hong Kong have become less frequent since the protests began, two people said.

For senior managers in Hong Kong’s financial industry — which accounts for about 20 percent of the territory’s GDP — the potential for rising workplace tensions adds to challenges that already include a sinking local economy and a pullback in dealmaking.

Banks have to find ways to accommodate employees with differing views without getting caught up in controversies that damage their brands, said Benjamin Quinlan, chief executive officer of financial services consultancy Quinlan & Associates in Hong Kong.

“Firms need to be much more clever about the way things are handled, carefully balancing free and open thinking while ensuring ongoing employee professionalism,” said Quinlan, a former executive at Deutsche Bank AG.

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