Commentary on Political Economy

Friday, 11 December 2020


Treasury Takes No Action on Hong Kong Banking Sanctions

Updated on 
  • No ‘significant’ transactions yet found with sanctioned people
  • Law seeks to bar banking by Carrie Lam, other officials

The U.S. Treasury Department said Friday it hasn’t identified any banks or other financial institutions linked to a group of people sanctioned in October over China’s crackdown on Hong Kong.

The decision, announced in a report required by Congress, is likely to come as a relief to major banks that had sought to unwind any connection to those sanctioned for fear of facing punishment.

“At this time, Treasury has not identified any FFI that has knowingly conducted a significant transaction with a foreign person” identified by the State Department, the Treasury report said, referring to “foreign financial institutions.” It added that “Treasury will continue to monitor for any activity that meets these criteria.”

The Treasury report was required under the Hong Kong Autonomy Act passed by Congress and followed a State Department report to Congress in October that listed 10 officials, including Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and Xia Baolong, the head of China’s Hong Kong affairs office, over their roles in implementing a new security law.

The act gave the U.S. 60 days to identify banks that have business with those on the list. The banks singled out could face sanctions at some point over the next year. Banks operating in Hong Kong, including Citigroup Inc. as well as major Chinese lenders, had been taking steps to ensure they are compliant with U.S. laws.

Political Upheaval

Hong Kong has continued to be rocked by political upheaval in recent weeks. Last month, China passed a resolution allowing the disqualification of Hong Kong lawmakers who weren’t deemed sufficiently loyal, prompting opposition legislators to resign en masse.

Citigroup took steps in August to suspend accounts linked to some of the targeted individuals, a person familiar with the matter said at the time. Standard Chartered Plc, based in London, has also reviewed whether it has relationships with any of the officials and will monitor their transactions, another person said.

Even China’s largest state-run banks moved to comply, seeking to safeguard their access to crucial dollar funding and overseas networks. Major lenders with operations in the U.S., including Bank of China Ltd.China Construction Bank Corp., and China Merchants Bank Co., have turned cautious on holding accounts for the 11 officials, including Lam, people familiar with the matter have said.

Lam signaled as much in an interview with Hong Kong International Business Channel recently, saying “I have piles of cash at home because the government is paying me cash for my salary because I don’t have a bank account.”

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