Hong Kong activists and a senior bank executive said the police are digging into the financial records of pro-democracy protesters without their consent as authorities crack down on political opposition.
An executive at a major retail bank in Hong Kong with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters that the number of requests for customers’ financial records by Hong Kong police has more than doubled over the past six months or so.
The executive said the increase was due to requests for information about pro-democracy activists and that the number of people affected likely remains in double figures overall.
The increasing use of bank records in questioning activists, which has not previously been reported, shows police in the city are using the full extent of their powers to investigate people suspected of breaking the stringent national security law which was introduced on June 30.
Six pro-democracy activists told Reuters that Hong Kong police obtained some of their bank records without their consent and questioned them about certain transactions after they were arrested earlier this month.
Some of the banks involved include HSBC Holdings and its Hang Seng Bank subsidiary, Citigroup unit Citibank and Standard Chartered. Representatives of those banks declined to comment on individual accounts.
Banks in Hong Kong have little choice but to comply with police requests, the senior bank executive told Reuters: “The aggrieved party can go to the court if they think their accounts were frozen or their transaction details were shared for wrong reasons, but there’s very little we can do here.”
A Hong Kong police representative declined to comment on why officers were seeking activists’ financial records, saying the department would not disclose details of its operations or investigations.
Police in Hong Kong, as in most places in the world, have long been able to request customer information from banks as part of criminal investigations. Reuters could not determine whether the national security law has made it easier for police to get hold of individuals’ bank records.
A spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, which regulates the banking sector, said: “Financial institutions are expected to cooperate with (law enforcement agencies) on investigations and law enforcement actions.”
Police requests for customer data are a further headache for international banks caught in the crossfire between China and the United States over Hong Kong, according to three executives at foreign banks in Hong Kong who spoke to Reuters.
Tension between the two countries has escalated after the US government barred American companies and people from doing business with Chief Executive Carrie Lam and 10 other Hong Kong and Chinese officials. International banks including HSBC, Hong Kong’s largest bank, have complied with the US sanctions.
Hong Kong authorities have compelled banks to freeze the accounts of several pro-democracy activists, including media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who was charged in December under the national security law and is now in prison in Hong Kong awaiting a bail hearing.
HSBC froze Lai’s account last year, according to Mark Simon, an associate of Lai. HSBC declined to comment.
Banks “are between a rock and a hard place”, said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies, part of the University of London in Britain. “When the police come and ask for whatever, as long as it is in accordance with the laws of Hong Kong, they have to comply,” he said.
“This can conflict with the expectations people have of their multinationals back in their home country.” (Source: CNA)