HSBC’s Cowper-Coles to Exit After Criticizing UK Stance on China

HSBC Holdings Plc’s head of public affairs is set to step down shortly after making controversial comments about the British government’s handling of its relationship with China.

(Bloomberg) — HSBC Holdings Plc’s head of public affairs is set to step down shortly after making controversial comments about the British government’s handling of its relationship with China.

Sherard Cowper-Coles will leave the UK lender next month, a person familiar with the matter said, asking not to be identified discussing internal developments. The executive had worked at HSBC for a decade, joining the bank in 2013 initially as a senior adviser to the group’s top brass before heading its global public affairs unit.

In his current role, the former British diplomat oversees public policy and government relations around the world for Europe’s largest bank, advising Chairman Mark Tucker and senior executives. A spokeswoman for HSBC and Cowper-Coles declined to comment.

While the exact reason for the executive’s departure isn’t yet clear, it comes just over a month after he issued an apology for remarks he made at a private event in London, where he criticized the UK government for being “weak” and allowing itself to be strong-armed by the US into cutting back business dealings with China.

Cowper-Coles told attendees at the closed-door meeting in June that the UK would often bow to demands from Washington and that the British shouldn’t blindly follow the US but look after their own interests, Bloomberg News reported last month. Those comments prompted a backlash from some British lawmakers.

The controversy shows how businesses like HSBC operating in China are struggling to navigate rising geopolitical tensions as the West seeks to dial back commercial ties after courting the Asian power for decades. The British lender, which was founded in colonial Hong Kong about 158 years ago, has identified China as a key market in its broad pivot toward Asia, which accounts for more than half of its income.

The lender has also been under pressure from top shareholder Ping An Insurance Group Co. to improve returns even as the Chinese insurer failed to gain the backing of other investors to compel HSBC to report regularly on a possible carve-out of the Asian unit.

Personal Views

Cowper-Coles’s comments followed a visit to China where he met senior government officials in his capacity as the chairman of the China-Britain Business Council, according to the lobby group’s website.  

“I apologize for any offence caused,” he said in a statement to Bloomberg News in August. HSBC said at the time that the comments were made in his personal capacity.

In response, UK’s former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith said the bank has “an awful lot to answer for,” while fellow backbencher Tim Loughton described the lender as an “apologist” for the Chinese government. 

Cowper-Coles has also been at the center of another controversy. This month he stepped down from his role as the UK chair of the Saudi British Joint Business Council. This came weeks after a British newspaper reported some controversial remarks he made at a speech in July. The former UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Israel and Afghanistan told students at the University of Oxford that “the Arab mind is empty compared to the Chinese,” according to the Daily Mail. 

The former diplomat, who is an Arabic speaker, also said he wished he’d learned Chinese instead of Arabic when he was in public service because China is “more interesting.”

He was encouraged to give up the position at the Saudi-British lobby group following those comments, Bloomberg News reported this month.

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