US secretary of state Mike Pompeo had previously accused HSBC of ‘kowtowing’ to Beijing after the bank’s top Asia executive publicly expressed support for the controversial national security law © Bloomberg

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo has stepped up his attack on HSBC, accusing the UK lender of caving to Chinese pressure to block pro-democracy Hong Kong media executives from accessing their money while maintaining accounts for Chinese officials under US sanctions.

America’s top diplomat said on Wednesday he was “dismayed” that the Chinese Communist party’s “coercive bullying tactics against our friends in the United Kingdom continues”.

He said “free nations must ensure that corporate interests are not suborned by the CCP to aid its political repression”.

The Trump administration is waging an escalating campaign against China, which the US has censured over trade, coronavirus and spying claims amid renewed tensions in the South China Sea. 

Mr Pompeo has taken a hard line on China’s imposition of a draconian security law on Hong Kong and has pushed the UK, the territory’s former colonial power, to respond with a tougher stance against Beijing.

Washington imposed sanctions this month on 11 Chinese and Hong Kong officials including Carrie Lam, Hong Kong chief executive, accusing them of being party to repression in the financial hub. 

The latest public attack on HSBC piles pressure on the sprawling 155-year-old bank, which is walking an increasingly perilous geopolitical tightrope between China and the west.

Despite being headquartered in London and reliant on US dollars to fund global trade, HSBC makes more than 90 per cent of its profit in Asia, particularly its birthplace of Hong Kong. The bank has ambitious plans to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in mainland China while shrinking its less profitable operations in the US and Europe.

Citing reports that HSBC prevented executives at pro-democracy publisher Next Media from accessing their money, Mr Pompeo said: “HSBC maintains accounts for individuals sanctioned for denying Hong Kongers’ freedom, while shutting accounts for those seeking freedom.”

Hong Kong police this month detained Jimmy Lai, the 72-year-old tycoon behind the Next Digital media empire, along with several other executives including members of his family.

Mr Pompeo did not identify the individuals facing sanctions or the source of the reports about Next Media. HSBC declined to comment. The US state department did not immediately respond to a request for clarification.

The secretary of state made similar accusations against HSBC in June, accusing it of “kowtowing” to Beijing after the bank’s top Asia executive, Peter Wong, publicly expressed support for the national security law. Mr Pompeo called on Britain and its institutions to choose a side amid escalating tensions between western nations and China.

HSBC’s support of the security law, which came into force on June 30, has also been strongly criticised by the British political establishment, which is taking a harder line after years of courting Beijing.

While the UK agreed in January to allow Chinese telecoms equipment maker Huawei a role in delivering 5G mobile networks, Prime Minister Boris Johnson subsequently reversed the decision and has banned Huawei from the UK’s 5G market.

The UK's foreign and commonwealth office said it was in “close contact with a wide range of businesses in Hong Kong and are working with them on the impact of the national security legislation and related developments” following the US announcement.

HSBC is also caught up in a diplomatic spat over the arrest of Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, in Canada in 2018. Beijing has blamed the lender for providing information to US prosecutors that led to Ms Meng’s arrest, while state-run newspapers have branded it “unethical” and an “unreliable entity”.

On Wednesday Mr Pompeo also said the US would deny visas to Chinese individuals associated with militarising islands in the South China Sea or helping prevent China’s neighbours accessing their offshore resources.

He accused Beijing of “trampling on the sovereign rights of its neighbours” and said it must not be allowed to use Chinese state-owned enterprises “as weapons to impose an expansionist agenda”.

The US added 24 Chinese SOEs to a sanctions list. 

Mr Pompeo said Chinese SOEs had since 2013 dredged and reclaimed more than 3,000 acres of land in the South China Sea that was subject to dispute. Beijing has denied militarising the islands, which it claims as sovereign territory.

Additional reporting by Laura Hughes in London

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