A top HSBC boss called the U.K. ‘weak’ for taking sides with the U.S. against China

A top executive at British bank HSBC said the U.K. was “weak” for siding with the U.S. in its tussles with China. 

Sherard Cowper-Coles, who serves as the head of public affairs at HSBC, made those comments at a closed-door event in June. He said at the time that the U.K. often goes with what Washington demands, adding that that shouldn’t be the case, Bloomberg reported, citing people with knowledge of the matter. 

Cowper-Coles, who is also the chair at China British Business Council and a former British ambassador to Hong Kong before its handover to China in the late 1990s, made his comments following a China visit, where he spoke about HSBC’s strong relations with the country, the outlet reported. 

Faced with possible pushback from the government of the U.K., its world headquarters, HSBC—and Cowper-Coles—were quick to note that the statements were not official bank policy.

“Sherard was at a private roundtable discussion under the Chatham House Rule and shared his personal views,” HSBC said in a statement to Fortune, referring to a principle in which information from certain meetings is free to use without being attributed to the source. 

“I was speaking at a private event under Chatham House Rule and my personal comments don’t reflect the views of HSBC or the China-Britain Business Council,” Cowper-Coles said in a statement. “I apologise for any offence caused.” 

Caught in the U.S.-China crossfire

Cowper-Coles’s remarks reflect the tricky balance that countries including the U.K. have had to maintain amid growing U.S.-China tensions. That dilemma is especially true for HSBC, which is listed in London but still makes a significant amount of its money from China. In 2022, 44% of HSBC’s profits came from its business in mainland China and Hong Kong, and compared to other foreign lenders the bank is also also one of the largest investors in the country.

In recent years, America has tightened export controls to China, including on semiconductors. Cowper-Coles told attendees in June that the U.S. demanded that the U.K. also take a similar approach.

One instance of Britain following Washington’s lead came in 2020 when the U.K. banned Chinese telecoms manufacturer Huawei from building 5G cellular networks, Cowper-Coles told attendees, according to Bloomberg. Huawei’s equipment has previously been scrutinized by the U.S. for being used as spyware by the Chinese government, but the company has rejected such claims.

Cowper-Coles has been critical in the past about how China is portrayed by the West. During an interview with Chinese state broadcaster CGTN, he said that politicians “demonize China,” although businesses see the “complexity” of operating there.

Under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the U.K. has sought to boost ties with the U.S. on defense, security and the economy. In March, Sunak said China “represents a challenge to the world order” and said he would increase defense spending as the world becomes more “volatile,” BBC reported. 

Sunak has called China a threat to the U.K. and the world previously, and in May, he said he was considering investment curbs by British companies in China. The prime minister argued that Britain’s approach to China is “very aligned” to that of the U.S.   

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