Hong Kong Sanctions Create Fissures Between US & Chinese Financial Systems – A Quagmire for Foreign Banks in US

[Update: The President said he had signed the Hong Kong Autonomy Act into law.]

Will the fissures turn into a gorge?

The question is whether the fissures may coalesce into a deep gorge dividing the financial systems of the 2 largest economies of the world.

Quagmire for financial institutions

Less than 2 weeks ago, on 7/2/2020, the US Congress unanimously passed the Hong Kong Autonomy Act (HKAA), which was the Congress’ response to the HK National Security Law (HKNSL) that the Chinese government enacted a few days prior on 6/30/2020 (see my previous post). The legislation should become a law soon, likely by midnight today.[1]

The HKAA generally will ban financial institutions (FIs)[2] from engaging in certain transactions with those foreign FIs (primarily Chinese FIs, but can be any non-US FIs) that have done “significant” businesses with certain sanctioned persons who have “materially” contributed to the erosion of autonomy in HK. (For more info about the definitions of the terms under HKAA, please see here.) To comply with such sanctions, however, a FI may run afoul of Article 29 of the HKNSL, which makes it a crime for any person (anyone in the world) to “conspire” with a foreign country to impose such sanctions. (See, also, here.) Hence, a FI can be penalized in US if it does not comply with US sanctions[3], but face the quagmire of being prosecuted in HK/China if it so complies.[4]

Picking side, US or China, but not both – a Hobson’s choice

For FIs currently having exposures in both US & HK/China, this quagmire may force them to decide whether to conduct business in either US or HK/China, but not both. For example, consider a Taiwanese bank (or a German, British, French, Canadian, Japanese, S Korean, Indonesian, Brazilian or any foreign bank) that conducts banking in both US and HK/China. If its HK/China operations are identified as having conducted significant transactions with sanctioned persons under HKAA, its US operations may be prohibited from engaging in transactions with its HK/China operations, or even with the bank headquarter. But, by complying with the US prohibitions, the US operations of the Taiwanese bank may be found to have violated Article 29 of the HKNSL, and hence the bank’s HK/China operations may be prosecuted, because both the US operations and the HK/China operations belong to the same bank. Under such circumstances, the Taiwanese bank may have no choice but to pick where it wants to do business in, either US, or HK/China, but not both.[5] That may be a Hobson’s choice that is not a choice at all.

An outlier black swan

In a US election year, and amidst the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, tensions between US and China have escalated. Financial sanctions such as the HKAA & national security laws such as the HKNSL are but a part of the complicated web of conflicts and brinkmanship involved in this new cold war. However, the Hobson’s choice facing down global financial institutions and the potentially unfathomable impact on the global financial systems may tamper the practical effects of these laws and orders.

For example, after the HKAA becomes law, the President has up to 120 days to identify the foreign financial institutions to be subject to sanctions, and up to 1 year to implement the sanctions. That means in the short run, no sanctions under HKAA will likely be enforced before the US election. After the US election, the political tensions may ease, allowing fine-tuning of the laws & regulations and their implementations, which may reduce the risks involved.

On the other hand, the severe erosion of HK autonomy and civil liberties under the HKNSL are frighteningly real for the people of HK. The prospect of great disruptions to the current financial systems arising from the US-China tensions, even if a low-probability outlier at this point, can also be real. It can be a black swan testing humanity’s ingenuity!


[1] The legislation has been sent to the President, who is required to sign the legislation within 10 days (except Sundays) or return it to the Congress. (“If any Bill shall not be returned by the President within ten Days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him, the Same shall be a Law”, US Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 2). If the president takes no action by the 10-days deadline, the legislation automatically becomes a law. On the other hand, if the President returns it, the Congress should have the 2/3 votes required to override the veto, required under the same Section of the Constitution.

[2] “Financial Institution” under HKAA has the same definition as in FDIC (31 USC 5312(a)(2)), which includes a broad spectrum of institutions, including insured banks, commercial banks or trust companies, securities brokers & dealers, foreign bank branches or agencies, etc.

[3] Violations of HKAA can carry civil penalties of the greater of $250k or twice the amount of transaction. Criminal penalties include fines up to $1m, or imprisonment for up to 20 years for a natural person, in addition to the fine. (50 USC 1705)

[4] Penalties under HKSNA generally implicate imprisonment of various terms, up to 10 years, and/or fines.

[5] It’s not clear whether compliance of sanctions by US subsidiaries of the Taiwanese bank (not branches or agencies) may subject the HK/China operations or the parent bank to prosecutions under HKNSA. However, because the US subsidiaries may be subject to the prosecution, meaning its personnel may be at risk if they enter the “influence zone” of HK/China, it will be difficult for the Taiwanese bank to communicate with and maintain control of the US subsidiaries, even if its HK/China operations and headquarter are not implicated.

Hong Kong’s National Security Law – Implications in Business Risk Assessments

On June 30, 2020, the Chinese government enacted Hong Kong’s National Security Law (Chinese | English), which was not officially published until the same time when it became effective, at 11 pm local time, foreclosing any meaningful public input (at least from the HK public) to the new law. Within hours after the publication of the law, several commentators have made an effort to dissect and analyze the new law, such as the note by Professor Donald Clarke, and the videoconferencing sessions organized by Hong Kong Democracy Council. More analyses should become available as the international communities scrutinize and analyze the new law in greater scope and depth.

At a quick glance, the new law imposes several measures that severely restrict or eradicate the autonomy and civil rights previously vested in HK. Without going into great details, and not meant to be complete, I have summarized these measures below.

Note: The English translations used throughout this post are based on here.

Inevitably, the new law will have significant international ramifications, not limited to HK only, evidenced by the sanction legislation passed promptly by US Congress in response to the new law. Notably, the new law is applicable to ANY person on the earth, a/k/a extraterritorial application. (Article 38. See the table above.) That means, for example, a foreigner non-HK resident may be found to have violated the new law by posting on twitter the words, “Fight for Freedom! Stand with Hong Kong!” In such cases, the person may be prosecuted under the new law if he/she is present in HK or China. Or, in a worst-case scenario, if the person resides in a country having an extradition treaty with China, he/she may face the specter of having to defend an extradition request from China.

What is more, the law creates the Office for Safeguarding Nation Security (“OSNS”), which is an agency of the Chinese government, but stationed within HK. This agency has tremendous powers, including “collecting and analyzing intelligence and information concerning national security” (Article 49(3)) and “handling cases concerning offence endangering national security” (Article 49(4)). It can take over jurisdiction from local HK government (Article 55) and send the case to China for prosecution and sentencing according to Chinese laws (Articles 56 & 57). Moreover, any person, be it an institution, organization, or individual must “comply with measures taken by” OSNS (Article 57). And yet, despite the tremendous powers OSNS wields, it is not subject to HK jurisdiction or law enforcement (Article 60). According to Professor Clarke, OSNS is not subject to Chinese law either. No wonder Professor Clarke lamented that the OSNS was “untouchable” and “Gestapol-level stuff”!

Considering its vague and broad scope, the extraterritorial application, the creation of such an unaccountable yet powerful agency as OSNS, and other authoritarian aspects of the new law, the business risks for international communities doing business with HK and China have increased substantially. It is unclear at this point how the new law will be enforced. Also, potential economic gains from the China markets and trades will likely remain an important factor in business risk assessments, which is itself a complicated undertaking. If we have learned anything about global risk assessments from recent events, however, it is that underestimating the risks in the early stage may prove to be unforgiving!