Hong Kong | How ‘one country, two systems’ did not work for artist Ai Weiwei
FILE PHOTO: Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations in the Manhattan borough of New York City, U.S., November 2, 2016.  REUTERS/Mike Segar/Files
FILE PHOTO: Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations in the Manhattan borough of New York City, U.S., November 2, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar/Files

How ‘one country, two systems’ did not work for artist Ai Weiwei

The 59-year-old who has long been a critic of China can open an account on the mainland, but not in Hong Kong

April 19, 2017 5:36 PM (UTC+8)

For some it is exclusive to be included in say a bank’s very, very important person list, but perhaps for others it is even more exclusive if they are excluded.

Spare a thought for Ai Weiwei, one of China’s most prominent artists and also most vocal China critic who could not open a bank account at Hong Kong giant HSBC, prompting a reaction from the prominent artist and activist on social media.

Ai wrote on Instagram, “I’m in Hong Kong, trying to open an account at HSBC. My request was refused due to a ‘commercial decision’ from headquarters.”

There are plenty of commercial reasons (unstable income, suspicious income sources, wrong address)  that I can think of, but none was disclosed in the process. A HSBC spokesman was quoted as saying in a Stand News report that the decision was not made for “political” reasons.

In April 2011, Ai was detained by the authorities as he boarded a Hong Kong-bound flight and held in a secret location for 81 days. He was freed on condition that he would not speak to the media – a condition he has not kept.

Interestingly, Ai has had no trouble in opening a bank account in mainland China. “This has not happened to me in Beijing. Maybe ‘one country, one system’ is better,” added Ai, referring to the “one country, two systems.”

So much for Hong Kong’s acclaim as the world’s freest economy and aspirations as an international city.

I can only imagine how Ai, 59, had to line up in the long queue at HSBC headquarters before someone (probably not a fan) invited him into a small room before giving him the cold shoulder.

This was not classy treatment, but it appears to have become common practice for banks to drive away new customers amid the tougher regulatory scrutiny required to prevent money laundering.

Global banks, including HSBC, have paid hefty penalties to regulators worldwide for failing to verify their customers’ source of wealth under increasingly tight measures against money laundering and terrorist financing.

The Hong Kong Monetary Authority said one in 10 new account applications were rejected because of the increased controls on the due diligence process for a potential customer.

Of the more than 10,000 new business accounts opened per month, over 90% of the successful applicants would have their scrutiny completed within one month, the banking watchdog said in a statement last June.

In the first two months of this year, the authority received five complaints from applicants for banks failing to complete the opening of business accounts, compared with 31 complaints in 2016 and 59 complaints in 2015.

Apart from the apparent flood of capital from Chinese entrepreneurs who want to move assets out of the mainland in the past few years, there were also cases of rejection due to political reasons.

For example, Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Time’s person of the Year in 2014 because of his involvement in Occupy Central, failed to open an account for his party Demosisto.

Likewise, ousted legislator Baggio Leung Chung-hang also had his personal account frozen by HSBC, and the account for his localist party Youngspiration was closed by Bank of China (Hong Kong).

Even legislator Wong Ting-kwong encountered problems with his bank, which he declined to name. The pro-establishment legislator was asked by the bank with whom he had held an account for 25 years to provide additional information for a company that he had left more than 10 years and also his spouse’s financial information.

Wong said, “It is alright if my wife asks me how much money I have. But I am afraid my family would be turned upside down if I ask her how much money she had.”

Perhaps it is no great loss for Ai, who is likely to win more fans after HSBC’s treatment, and there are plenty of other banks.

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