A former chief economist of Bank of Communications, the Chinese state-owned bank, has alleged he was forced to resign because he was a Hong Konger, highlighting concerns of a purge in the city’s financial services industry following months of pro-democracy protests.
Law Ka-chung, who was born and raised in the city, stepped down from his high-profile role at the Hong Kong unit of China’s fifth-largest bank in October after 14 years at the company. His departure came with no official explanation from BoCom.
Mr Law has told the Financial Times his departure was down to deep divisions that have emerged between mainland and local staff within the bank since the start of the protests. “They don’t think it’s appropriate for a Hong Kong guy to speak on behalf of a Chinese bank,” he said in his first interview with an international English-language media organisation since he was asked to resign.
Mr Law said the atmosphere within BoCom had become stricter in recent years, particularly over what he was able to say in media appearances. That contrasted strongly with 2014 when he commented on economic matters in public interviews at the time of the Umbrella Movement, a largely peaceful demonstration that occupied the streets of central Hong Kong for 79 days.
“Nowadays they even want to censor the views that you are expressing,” said Mr Law.
He said the bank’s management was particularly unhappy with his comments during a local radio interview that the Sars epidemic in 2003 had a greater impact on the city’s economy than the protests. He said this was seen to contradict the official argument of Beijing-backed political leaders such as Carrie Lam, the city’s chief executive, who has said the protests have been more damaging.
Mr Law also said the bank reprimanded him for forwarding to other colleagues a link to an economics news article that management perceived to be critical of the government.
Mr Law added that BoCom’s move was representative of a broader policy shift by mainland Chinese banks, which he said were slowly purging Hong Kongers and moving towards not employing young locals.
A spokeswoman from BoCom declined to comment.
But interviews with senior executives at several financial services companies — including banks, asset managers, accountancies and law firms — suggest the reluctance to hire Hong Kongers extends far wider than mainland Chinese banks. The executives said they fear recruiting anyone who has participated in activities deemed illegal by local authorities during the protests because it could affect relationships with mainland clients.
Managers at three Hong Kong-based global hedge funds said they would implement an unofficial hiring freeze on locals.
One mainland Chinese partner at the Hong Kong office of an international law firm said he would avoid hiring anyone who had taken part in violent protests. “I would ask if they have participated in the violence because I wouldn’t want that logic, using violence to achieve your demands, that’s not how the rule of law works,” said the lawyer.
Felix Yip, a lecturer in management at Hong Kong Baptist University, said human resource executives are more hesitant to hire locals and were increasing their “background checks” of personal social media accounts. “They will not say it publicly but informally they are hesitant to hire Hong Kong young graduates,” he said.
A Hong Kong-based recruiter for big companies said his clients were increasingly concerned about becoming involved in politics and “do not want to rub China the wrong way”. But he added it was more likely such companies would only fail to hire someone if they had been arrested or had a criminal record “whether it was because of protesting or anything else”.