HSBC refused to give me a bank account, Hong Kong’s best-known pro-democracy activist says

Joshua Wong in July, 2015.
Joshua Wong in July, 2015.
Image: Reuters/Bobby Yip
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Hong Kong’s well known student activist Joshua Wong says HSBC refused to give him a new bank account over political concerns, even as the Panama Papers show the bank has helped the world’s most powerful people set up offshore shell companies to hide their assets.

Wong, founder of the now defunct Hong Kong student activist group Scholarism, told a local radio station (link in Chinese) on Monday (Apr. 4) that HSBC rejected his bid to open a new savings account last week. He was trying to open the account to manage funds raised by his new political party, along with Agnes Chow Ting, another activist. HSBC also would not upgrade a “child” account Wong has held there since he was 14 years old to an “adult” account which can issue checks, he wrote on Facebook, despite the fact that he is a year older than the bank’s 18-year-old age limit.

Instead, bank staff asked both applicants for information about their parents’ income and jobs, Chow and Wong told the radio station. Their application cannot proceed for “administrative” and “commercial” reasons, the bank reportedly told the two, even though they believe they provided all necessary paper work.

“I think HSBC is just adopting political censorship towards my application,” Wong told Quartz in an email.

HSBC told Quartz it could not comment on individual customer accounts, and reiterated an earlier statement that “applications with appropriate information and documentation will be handled according to our standing procedures.” A spokesman added that the bank does “not discriminate in account opening on the grounds of race, gender and political viewpoint.”

HSBC Hong Kong’s standard bank account application asks for a Hong Kong identity card, contact information and employment status, but says no parental information is necessary for applicants over age 18.

Meanwhile, the leaked Panama Papers show HSBC helped its clients set up 2,300 offshore shell companies to hide wealth, more than any other bank involved, including UBS and Credit Suisse. “It’s not okay for me to open an account, but not a problem for the rich to set up offshore companies like crazy,” Wong wrote Tuesday on his Facebook page.

“If HSBC claims that they do not discriminate over various political viewpoints, why would it help rich and sensitive clients register more than 2,300 shell companies?,” Wong told Quartz.

Wong is best known as one of the organizers of the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014, and was named one of Time Magazine’s 25 Most Influential Teens of 2014. Chow, 19, one of the most visible female protest organizers, drew international attention in January for her outcry over Hong Kong’s five missing booksellers. Chow called their abductions, believed to be by mainland officials, a “white terror incident,” in a YouTube video that has been viewed one million times.

Previously, Wong said he would set up a new political party with former Scholarism members including Chow this month, to push for a referendum on Hong Kong’s future. Chow said in the radio interview (link in Chinese) they will turn to other Hong Kong banks to open a joint account, before they complete a company registry for the party.

HSBC’s refusal to give the two activists a bank account is the latest action that some Hong Kongers see as critical of the city’s pro-democracy movement. Before the 2014 protests, HSBC pulled advertising from a Hong Kong newspaper critical of mainland China, and the bank’s analysts told investors to sell Hong Kong stocks because of the potential negative impact. One bank director likened Hong Kong’s citizens to freed slaves in the US, and wondered publicly why they couldn’t be more patient about the right to vote.