Note before starting: Hats off to CGTN for its excellent video, “The Untold Story of Meng Wanzhou.” I referred to it extensively to expand my research.
The prosecution of telecommunications giant Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou on charges of violating U.S. sanctions policies with Iran has been very politicized from the outset and a bellwether in the decline of U.S.-Sino relations in an era of renewed cold war.
Now as the trial is going forward, an 800-pound gorilla in the room is the importance of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, better known by its abbreviation, HSBC, to the case.
A very quick recap on Meng Wanzhou’s story
Ms. Meng was apprehended in Vancouver, Canada, on December 1, 2018, at the behest of the United States, to be extradited south of the 49th parallel. Since then, she has been battling in court and in the headlines to show that U.S. charges of fraud are unfounded, and that she should be released.
She has been under house arrest in Vancouver for 2.5 years, grinding out endless testimonies, cross-examinations, and now a series of U.S./Canadian v. Meng legal team hearings, in the British Columbia Supreme Court.
We are not a part of this case, it would be inappropriate for us to comment … HSBC provided objective facts to the USDOJ (US Department of Justice) – HSBC, July 16, 2020.
What is so incredible about this high-profile, very Sino-American geopolitical jousting match is how involved HSBC was from the start.
Nevertheless, it continues to fly under, over, through and around Western mainstream media, like the perfect computer-modeled stealth fighter. HSBC and Meng in the same headline? Virtually nada.
It is a long story, so let’s keep it short
HSBC is not just any bank. It is Europe’s largest financial institution and has held this pole position since 2017.
What makes HSBC so bad is its origin and raison d’être. As detailed in The China Trilogy, 19th century British Queen Victoria and all subsequent royals have bragging rights to being history’s grandest king/queen-pin drug dealers, running the world’s longest lasting, biggest criminal global enterprise.
From 1839 to 1949, they shamelessly and venally pushed mountains of opium, and later morphine and heroin—after they were invented—onto, by some reports, up to 25% of China’s population.
This Chinese Century of Humiliation lasted from the first Opium War, in 1839, until Communist liberation in 1949. It was such a traumatic and devastating experience for the Chinese nation, that every post-liberation leader, from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping, always frames the start of China’s long march back to global prominence from 1839. In 5,000 years of recorded history, this year was the people’s nadir.
All of those illegal drugs going into China, and boatloads of Chinese silver, tea, silk, porcelain, clocks, furniture and many other high-value products going out to Britain’s vast global empire, represented over the decades trillions of today’s pounds/euros/dollars, hundreds of thousands of contracts, with an equal number of payer-payee transactions.
Queen Victoria’s solution to launder all this ill-gotten wealth was to create Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (HSBC), in 1865, based in London. Thoroughly Western, in spite of its duplicitous moniker, HSBC was the financial appendage of the British Crown, well into the 20th century, while being run under the UK’s economic aegis, until Hong Kong (HK) was returned to the People’s Republic of China in 1997.
HSBC has always been British, but is still very important to Hong Kong’s financial affairs. It is one of only three banks that have the authority to mint HK currency. It goes without saying that having the power to mint a currency is a fabulous advantage to launder and move money, much of which comes from illegal drug sales.
Old drug dealing and money laundering habits die hard
Which brings us to HSBC’s corporate governance, and it is not a pretty picture. After a century of drug cartels and their highly profitable money laundering, old, lazy criminal habits die hard.
In a 2016 article, just as the Meng Wanzhou/Huawei-cum-HSBC drama was converging in Washington, D.C., even uber-establishment Forbes had to note all the regulatory investigations, and pending/actual civil and criminal lawsuits that HSBC was facing.
Reading it reminded me of Leporello’s catalog of Don Giovanni’s conquests in Mozart’s opera of that name:
In Italy, six hundred and forty;
In Germany two hundred and thirty-one;
One hundred in France, in Turkey ninety-one;
But in Spain there are already one thousand and three.
Like Don Giovanni (better known under the Spanish form of his name, Don Juan), it appears HSBC is responsible for multiple violations in multiple countries. The list is as long as your arm. Wherever there is some dodgy scam going on in the world, HSBC is likely to have a finger in it.
HSBC’s 2015 media release (hsbc-holdings-plc-annual-results-2015-media-release.pdf (dropbox.com)) contains a section on Legal Proceedings and Regulatory Matters. In it, HSBC is unrepentant to its historical, drug cartel core, stating,
HSBC is party to legal proceedings and regulatory matters in a number of jurisdictions arising out of its normal business operations. Apart from the matters described below, HSBC considers that none of these matters are material.
Normal business operations? At least they got that right. Financial crimes are immaterial? Go figure.
The following concerns are listed after this cheeky preamble:
- Anti-money laundering and sanctions-related matters.
- Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC.
- Credit default swap regulatory investigation and litigation.
- Economic plans: HSBC Bank Brasil S.A.
- European interbank offered rates and other benchmark interest rate investigations and litigation.
- Fédération Internationale de Football Association (‘FIFA’) related investigations.
- Foreign exchange rate investigations and litigation.
- Hiring practices investigation.
- London interbank offered rates.
- Precious metals fix-related litigation and investigations.
- Regulatory review of consumer “enhancement services products.”
- Securities litigation.
- Tax-related investigations.
- US mortgage securitisation activity and litigation.
- US mortgage-related investigations.
Bring on the dope and rake in the cash
In 2012 U.S. prosecutors charged HSBC with drug cartel money laundering in Mexico, amounting to at least $881 million. It was fined $1.9 billion and, in December 2012, it agreed to a five-year DPA (Deferred Prosecution Agreement), to clean up its act and cooperate with any and all U.S. investigations.
An assistant attorney general, Lanny Breuer, opined:
HSBC is being held accountable for stunning failures of oversight – and worse … that led the bank to permit narcotics traffickers and others to launder hundreds of millions of dollars through HSBC subsidiaries and to facilitate hundreds of millions more in transactions with sanctioned countries.
It was the third time in ten years where HSBC had been prosecuted for similar crimes.
Targeting Huawei in Internal Probe
In 2012, under a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA), Michael Cherkasky, Executive Chairman and Head of Exiger Government Services, was named HSBC’s compliance monitor, whose job was to track whether they were cleaning up their dirty work.
Cherasky’s report to USDOJ in 2016 found potential financial crimes and he was worried whether HSBC was adhering to all of its legal obligations.
In late 2016, HSBC started an internal probe targeting Huawei. This included gathering possible incriminating evidence on the relationship between Skycom in Iran and Huawei, China’s best-known telecommunications company, which had emerged as a symbol of Chinese economic success.
Why Huawei, Skycom and at that time? These two ICT entities include three of the U.S.’s most feared adversaries: Huawei, China, and Iran. Talk about a geopolitical hat trick! This, while HSBC admitted at the time to thousands of ongoing regulatory concerns.
Yet, HSBC explicitly went after Huawei at the expense of all its other clients. Was HSBC prompted in this direction? HSBC’s DPA clearly states,
HSBC is to cooperate with the Department of Justice in any and all investigations.
What appears to have transpired is that HSBC was intent on providing “useful information” to the rich and powerful in order to obtain a get-out-of-jail-free card.
In February 2017, the U.S. Departments of Justice, Treasury, Commerce and Homeland Security were said to have had a tête-à-tête on the Potomac, to discuss progress in confronting Huawei, including its business dealings with HSBC.
At the time, Donald Trump had only been in the White House for a month. Peter Navarro, a proud Sinophobe, was then his Director of the National Trade Council. Steve Bannon, another “Howling at the Yellow Moon” fanatic, was White House Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor to the President.
Mike Pompeo, who foams at the mouth whenever China is mentioned, was Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and, a year and a half later, became Trump’s brash “Beware of the Yellow Peril” Secretary of State.
Were they there? Did they send briefs or persons from their offices to participate? Nonetheless, their presence in the new Trump administration surely set the anti-China tone.
At the same time, HSBC started giving a series of presentations to USDOJ about Huawei and Skycom, based on what they found in their files. The HSBC show-and-tells lasted until the end of 2017, more than a year.
Hmm … I wonder if Meng’s now infamous HK PowerPoint presentation was in the mix?
Interestingly, until that time, the U.S. never cited Huawei for non-compliance or breaking American laws. Wilbur Ross, then Secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce (USDOC), stated in a June 2018 interview,
I’ve heard a lot of the rumors about Huawei. As of the moment, I don’t believe that our department has found any violations of Huawei.
Eight months later, he jumped onto the Trump anti-China bandwagon, singing his praises to the president, now calling the Chinese criminal, during USDOJ’s press conference, announcing its prosecution of Huawei and Meng Wanzhou.
It is clear that Trump & Co. were itching to take on China, Inc., and Huawei was a big target from day one—a symbol of Chinese economic success.
In truth, targeting Huawei began even earlier under Obama. Nonetheless, kidnapping Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver Airport on December 1, 2018 was just one more Machiavellian, Great Game tactic to try to achieve their goals. It is what empires do.
Now, full circle back to that infamous Meng-HSBC meeting in 2013
Nothing about Meng’s meeting with Alan Thomas, HSBC’s then deputy head of global banking for the Asia Pacific, makes any sense, and with knowledge of the first half of this exposé’s context, it is therefore highly suspect.
First, since when do high-level executives meet in an openly public place to discuss internal information? Entitled Trust, Compliance and Cooperation, CGTN reported that Meng’s PowerPoint presentation was considered confidential, since it focused exclusively on Huawei’s business relationship with Iranian Skycom, and not the usual boilerplate compliance format for annual reports and media releases.
According to the story, Meng’s translator was there, since she does not speak English well. Are you going to believe that they would meet in a Hong Kong restaurant, with Chinese waiters milling about and likely Chinese guests sitting at nearby tables, for all to listen in?
They could have requested a private dining room but, still, local formality would have, at a minimum, called for tea and snacks to be served, which meant waiters were in and out.
This was not an Amway meeting. The whole restaurant scenario is simply too preposterous to consider.
Alan Thomas was a high-level officer of global banking giant HSBC and Meng was and still is the CFO of the world’s biggest and most successful Information and Communication Technology company.
They work in the billions of euros and dollars. Do you honestly believe that someone of Thomas’s level and caliber did not get an advanced copy of the presentation, to study and prepare questions and comments?
The idea is beyond absurd.
Next, who invited whom? HSBC divulged in their sudden, rush 2016 internal Huawei probe that it was Huawei that requested the meeting with Thomas. Really? Someone with apparent knowledge of what happened disagrees.
On condition of anonymity, in front of a camera, they said this meeting was not arranged through normal protocol channels.
At Meng’s and Thomas’s levels, a formal invitation would have been sent via email. This was not done. HSBC has not produced any email to show it was Huawei’s initiative and neither has Huawei, which means if Huawei accepted the invitation outside protocol channels, they were still naïve back in those early days.
So, how was it arranged? Can you picture Meng or Thomas picking up the phone and saying,
Hey, let’s meet at a restaurant and talk about Huawei’s relationship with Iranian Skycom!
Highly doubtful, but it is possible that administrative assistants could have arranged the meeting by phone.
In any case, given that HSBC had just signed its USDOJ DPA, which states
HSBC is to cooperate with the Department of Justice in any and all investigations,
and was desperate to avoid prosecution, who do you think requested the meeting, Meng or Thomas? Huawei or HSBC?
Next, HSBC Tower is kind of hard to miss in Hong Kong and Huawei’s global headquarters are in Shenzhen, just across the river in Guangdong Province, PRC.
HSBC Tower, Hong Kong
HSBC Tower is on Queen’s Road, Hong Kong Island. It opened in 1985 and was designed by British architectural firm Foster + Partners. At 99,000 square meters of floor space (1,065,627 sq ft), it offers a magnificent view of the famous harbor below, in keeping with feng shui requirements to assure success and wealth.
Are we supposed to believe that, on August 22, 2013, its many tens of meeting and conference rooms were all full? Thomas couldn’t find even a small one for the CFO of mighty Huawei? Surely, at his grade, his office would have been big enough for Meng and her translator, maybe even overlooking that fabulous harbor below.
They could have met at Huawei’s HQ too. Today, there are high-speed train service and direct metro lines between Hong Kong and Shenzhen but, back in 2013, Huawei and HSBC could have gotten together on either side of the border via car, bus, train, ferry or footbridge.
Again, the whole restaurant shtick is total balderdash.
Next, why was Thomas sent to the meeting? He was HSBC’s deputy head of banking in the Asia Pacific. HSBC, like every international entity of even modest size, has a full-time compliance and legal department. He was a dealmaker, not a regulatory eager beaver. It was like asking a builder to do the job of a plumber.
Why was HSBC’s head of compliance and regulation not pegged for the meeting?
Ditto Meng. As Huawei’s Chief Financial Officer, her job is to count beans. Along with securing funding, that is what financial bosses do.
Why didn’t HSBC ask Huawei’s legal expert to talk about Iranian Skycom?
Song Liuping is Huawei’s Chief Legal Officer and Compliance Officer, based in Shenzhen, maybe on the same floor as Meng. He oversees a team of more than 1,500 regulatory bloodhounds, and for which the company began these efforts “very early on and investing hugely,” to satisfy its global compliance management, from senior officers on down. This, while Huawei had been, since 2009-2010, in regular contact with USDOC, for trade compliance, including de minimis rules, CISADA (U.S. sanctions) and making sure Huawei fully understood all U.S. laws, including newly enacted ones.
Song visited USDOC several times for consultations and the bilateral briefing took place every 18-24 months. Unfortunately, this stopped in 2016 (three years after the Meng-Thomas meeting), when Huawei learned they were being investigated by the U.S.
Are you trying to tell me HSBC did not know who Song Liuping was, or that Huawei did not have a Legal/Compliance Department? Why didn’t they invite Song or one of his deputy chiefs—regulatory experts all—to get it straight from the horse’s mouth?
Is it because this horse is not Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei’s daughter and Meng is?
Ren was and still is reviled in Cold Warrior Washington, since he is a retired People’s Liberation Army (PLA) deputy regimental leader (IT-Information Technology), close to the Communist Party of China (CPC) and is proud to share Mao Zedong’s thought with the company’s 200,000 workers, for inspiration and business insights, the latter who share in the world’s largest employee-owned corporation.
For anti-communist neoliberals, there is not a lot to like here.
Alan Thomas has done very well for himself in the ensuing years. Today, he is an HSBC Trustee on the Board of Directors: Member of Asset & Liability Committee and Member of Audit & Risk Committee. Nice, cushy job. Was Thomas rewarded for a dirty deed well done?
Poor, pitiful HSBC. Boo-hoo-hoo!
Incredibly, in the U.S. case to extradite Meng from Canada, the U.S. government stated that HSBC is one of four “victim institutions” (Standard Chartered, BNP Paribas, Citigroup, along with HSBC), for exposing them to “both economic and reputational” risks (sic).
Talk about Orwellian doublespeak. War Is Peace, Freedom Is Slavery, Ignorance Is Strength, and now we can add to 1984, HSBC Is the Victim!
Einar Tangen, a former U.S. prosecutor, mind you, did not mince his words, outraged that
No, not one (the four “victim institutions”). Not one single one or any of them were interdicted at an airport and held, based on a warrant. No, they were all given a pass. Not one of them is in jail.
We are talking about criminality on a vast scale. And now, you understand what was HSBC’s driving force here; what they wanted to do was to hand something over to the U.S. Government, the Department of Justice, that would curry favor.
Bingo! Which, of course worked like a charm. Throwing clients under the proverbial imperial bus and selling them down Snitch River pays big dividends. On December 11, 2017, at the conclusion of HSBC’s five-year DPA, the bank was completely exonerated of all Mexican drug cartel money laundering charges, “since HSBC had lived up to all its commitments to improve control and compliance measures [sic].”
What a coincidence! What was not mentioned sotto voce, was the most important clause in HSBC’s DPA: HSBC is to cooperate with the Department of Justice in any and all investigations.
Einar Tangen went on to say,
This is not a game of Go Fish, right? The idea that we are more civilized today than we were in the past … How is that possible, when in essence he (Trump) has kidnapped her? Alright? He’s holding her for ransom, against her father and the Chinese government, and her own liberty, for his own political gain.
The whole Meng Wanzhou-Huawei saga is a tawdry tale of imperial bullying and global capitalist treachery. HSBC has always been at the center of this story and still is. In fact, it has been in many more, going back to its founding by Queen Victoria in 1865.
Appendix – Evil deeds done most foul, ad infinitum
HSBC’s criminal hits just keep on coming. Remember, it was laughably “exonerated” at the end of its DPA in December 2017. Yet, two months before this absurd high-class indulgence, the bank was already back in the headlines.
It reminds me of that classic line from the movie The Mask:
September 30, 2017 – US fines HSBC $175 million for lax forex trading oversight
January 19, 2018 – HSBC in $100 million forex fraud settlement
April 27, 2018 – Ex-HSBC executive sentenced to two years for foreign exchange scheme
September 21, 2020 – HSBC moved vast sums of dirty money after paying record laundering fine
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About the Author
Jeff J. Brown has lived and worked with the Chinese people for 16 years.
He is author of The China Trilogy, blogs and podcasts at China Rising Radio Sinoland, is the producer of China Tech News Flash!, and is the curator of the Bioweapon Truth Commission Global Online Library.
His forthcoming book, Faster than a Speeding Bullet—the Chinese People’s Unstoppable Socialist Dream for Global Leadership into the 22nd Century, will be released in 2021.
Jeff can be reached at: email@example.com.