Thousands have signed an online petition denouncing reported comments by an HSBC Holdings board member in which she likened Hong Kong protesters' demands for democracy to the emancipation of slaves.
Laura Cha, who is also a member of Hong Kong's policy-making Executive Council, chairwoman of the city's Financial Services Development Council and a member of China's parliament, was quoted as making the comments at an event in Paris.
“American slaves were liberated in 1861 but did not get voting rights until 107 years later. So why can't Hong Kong wait for a while?” the Standard newspaper on Thursday quoted Cha as saying, referring to demands for free elections in the former British colony.
Cha said democracy could not be reached in just one step and warned that investors' confidence in Hong Kong was at a critical point, the newspaper added.
Cha, who is also a member of HSBC's Conduct and Values Committee, did not respond to a request for comment.
HSBC's Asia-Pacific chief Peter Wong said he had noticed the speech from Cha but that he would stick to the bank's principle and “refrain fom commenting on political items and issues.”
The Financial Services Development Council did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The comments triggered outrage on social media and nearly 6,000 people had signed the petition by Friday evening. The web site of the petition said it had been launched by Jeffrey Chan from Hong Kong. It only appeared to be in English.
“We, the Hong Kong public, will not stand these remarks likening our rights to slavery, nor will we stand the kind of voter disenfranchisement her and her associates attempt to perpetrate on the Hong Kong public,” said the petition to HSBC, that sought an apology from Cha.
The petition is addressed to the HSBC board of directors and is signed “The People of Hong Kong.”
China has ruled Hong Kong since 1997 through a “one country, two systems” formula which allows wide-ranging autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland and specifies universal suffrage as an eventual goal.
But Beijing said in August it would screen candidates who want to run for the city's election for a chief executive in 2017, which democracy activists said rendered the notion of universal suffrage meaningless.
For more than a month, key roads leading into three of Hong Kong's most economically and politically important districts have been barricaded with wood and steel by thousands of protesters.
The protests drew well over 100,000 at their peak. Hundreds of demonstrators remained at the main protest site in Admiralty district close to government buildings on Friday night, some dressed in Halloween costumes.
The highlight was an impersonator of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who showed up to support the protesters.
The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, which was established in 1865 to finance growing trade between Europe, India and China, has for decades been the most prominent retail and commercial bank in Hong Kong, using the city as a bedrock for its global expansion. HSBC has the largest branch network in mainland China of a foreign bank.
The controversy is the latest to drag HSBC into Hong Kong politics.
Earlier this year, Next Media said HSBC and Standard Chartered PLC had pulled millions of dollars worth of advertisements from Apple Daily after they were pressured by Beijing.
Apple Daily is owned by media magnate Jimmy Lai, an outspoken critic of Beijing who has supported pro-democracy activists through his publications and with donations.
HSBC and Standard Chartered have said the decision to pull the advertising was for commercial reasons.
Cha's comments came just days after Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying triggered a wave of criticism when he said that free elections were unacceptable partly because they risked giving Hong Kong's poor and working class a dominant voice.
Financial Secretary John Tsang is due to visit Beijing on Monday to discuss issues of mutual concern, the Hong Kong government said late on Friday.