The Tory party has had a difficult relationship with China in recent years. David Cameron and George Osborne’s ‘Golden era’ of Sino-UK diplomacy foundered on the rock of Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang while Boris Johnson’s backbenchers have consistently urged a tougher line on tech companies like Huawei.
The G7 summit in June illustrated the predicament facing ministers: maintaining pressure on President XI over human rights violations while securing Chinese backing for global action on climate change. Tensions on Westminster’s green benches have played out behind the scenes in Whitehall too. Some urging a tougher line on China talk of being ‘brought back into line’ by No. 10 if they are perceived to go ‘too far.’
One former Downing Street aide who appears to have been on the more dove-ish side of the argument was Boris Johnson’s former City Hall colleague Eddie Lister, now ennobled as Baron Udny-Lister. Back in February the former deputy mayor of London was revealed to have brokered China’s purchase of a massive new embassy in Tower Hamlets at the same time he was being paid by both the seller of the site and the firm buying it for China.
Udny-Lister quietly left his post as the prime minister’s special envoy to the Gulf just two months later. Fortunately he has managed to land himself a new gig instead as paid advisor to HSBC’s chairman, Mark Tucker, whom he has known personally for some time. His focus will be on its work in the Far East and the multinational bank’s second headquarters in Hong Kong.
In assessing the application, watchdog ACOBA agreed with the Cabinet Office that ‘there are significant risks associated with the seniority and broad scope of his role at No 10 and access to information’ but nevertheless waved it through. His role will likely include extensive travel around the Far East and beyond, given his brief to be an ‘ambassador-at-large’ for the firm and ‘familiarisation with appropriate key global clients.’
Some of those ‘key global clients’ could well be, er, China’s gargantuan state-owned enterprises. These companies have engaged in a clampdown on the global London-based bank in recent months, with Reuters identifying nine state-owned enterprises that have ended or cut back on their business with HSBC as a result of the bank’s falling out of favour with Beijing. China is crucial to HSBC’s future – the bank’s mainland and Hong Kong operations accounted for 39 per cent of its annual $50.4 billion in revenue in 2020, while the UK, its second largest market, brought in 28 per cent.
HSBC has operated in Greater China for more than 150 years and appears to be doing its best to avoid further reprisals. Its efforts to comply with new laws enacted as part of China’s crackdown in Hong Kong such as freezing accounts which belonged to pro-democracy politician Ted Hui have led to accusations from British MPs of ‘double-standards, hypocrisy and appeasement.’ The bank’s Chief Executive Noel Quinn shot back that ‘I can’t cherry-pick which laws to follow’ though he accepted Hong Kong could be a ‘challenging’ work environment.
Still, with Eddie Lister by his chairman’s side, at least they now have a veteran used to difficult workplaces.
Update: It seems Lister’s appointment has not gone down well with some of his fellow Tories. Andrew Rosindell MP, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, told Steerpike:
‘The so-called golden era of UK-China relations is dead. Through their own behaviour, crushing Hong Kong’s freedoms, bullying Australia, threatening Taiwan, subjugating its ethnic minorities, Beijing has made clear that we now exist in a new binary. You are either pro-China – with all the horrors that entails – or pro-freedom. No Conservative should be anywhere near that regime or any organisations which help whitewash its appalling behaviour.’<//>
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