When Peter Wong announced his retirement this week after a decade as HSBC’s chief executive for Asia, he told staff that turning crisis into opportunity was “embedded” in the bank’s DNA.
HSBC has lurched through a series of crises in Europe, the US and South America in the past 10 years — while Wong has quietly eased a path for Europe’s largest lender into Hong Kong’s wealthiest circles and Beijing’s corridors of power.
Around the time he became Asia CEO, $8 in every $10 of the bank’s profits were generated in the region but half its loan book and more than two-thirds of its capital were deployed in Europe and the US.
Now, growth in China and Hong Kong has become the core of its global strategy and more than $100bn of capital has been reallocated to the region. HSBC’s US business and part of its European operations have been wound down or sold off.
Wong’s links to Hong Kong’s business elite and China’s Communist party have been crucial. Allies say the veteran Hong Kong banker has become “indispensable” to HSBC — he will stay in a new role as the bank’s chair in Hong Kong, a position traditionally occupied by the global CEO.
Yet the 69-year-old was thrust into a crisis of his own last year when he compromised more than a century of careful political neutrality at HSBC by signing a petition in favour of Beijing’s tough national security law in Hong Kong. That won plaudits in Beijing but catapulted Wong’s name on to the radars of irate politicians in Westminster and Washington.
“It caused seriously difficulties for Noel Quinn and Mark Tucker,” said one former HSBC board member, referring to the bank’s chief executive and chair respectively. “The emphasis has all been on Peter’s political connections since he signed the NSL petition but that does his 40-year career as an extremely good banker a disservice.”
HSBC’s fortunes have become intertwined with China. Wong’s relationship with the Communist party — he sits on its core political advisory body — has been a huge benefit to the bank. He smoothed over tensions with Beijing after HSBC gave documents to US prosecutors investigating Chinese tech group Huawei over alleged sanctions breaches.
“The Chinese government considers him a friend and a trusted person,” said Sir David Li, executive chair of Bank of East Asia and the most senior banker in Hong Kong. Jeffrey Lam, a member of Hong Kong’s legislative council, said: “HSBC is between two hotplates: the mainland and the US. Peter has handled it tremendously — dealing with that conflict takes skill.”
Wong, who is also a trusted friend and banker to Hong Kong tycoons such as Sir Li Ka-shing, Henry Cheng and Thomas Kwok, was poached from Standard Chartered in 2005 when HSBC realised it had almost no senior executives from Hong Kong or China. He was already established in local and mainland Chinese business and political circles as chair of the territory’s influential Association of Banks.
Powerful friends deeply ensconced in Hong Kong politics say he is “diplomatic” and “no nonsense”.
“He talks very little but when he does he means what he says,” said BEA’s Li. Peter Ma, chair of Ping An, the Chinese insurer that is HSBC’s largest shareholder, described Wong as the “elder statesman” of international banking in Asia.
As chair of Hong Kong’s original bank, Wong will maintain his status among Hong Kong’s taipans — the city’s most revered businessmen. Although he will be replaced as Asia head by two more junior colleagues, he will keep living in Taipan House, HSBC’s $73m residence for its senior local executive on the city’s exclusive Peak.
More importantly, he will play a crucial role in shaping the territory’s future as an international financial centre. Hong Kong has been forced to defend its reputation as a global finance hub since the eruption in 2019 of violent pro-democracy protests and the introduction last year of the national security law.
Wong spends hours discussing issues that are of “critical interest to our future as an international financial centre,” said Joseph Yam, Hong Kong’s first central banker who now sits on the legislative committee.
“People accuse [Hong Kong] of becoming more and more like China,” he added. “That’s silly — Peter is able to see that. He does not have the kind of problematic culture we see on Wall Street, where financial institutions have become self-serving rather than serving the economy.”
There is no retirement age at HSBC so the timing of Wong’s departure has prompted questions. One insider linked it to the decision to relocate four global business heads from London to Hong Kong later this year.
“Peter has historically had a lot of independence, now there will be lots of people on the 34th floor of 1 Queen’s Road Central [HSBC’s historic local headquarters] bumping into him, trying to attach themselves to Hong Kong’s very strong P&L,” the person said.
“Status and face count for tonnes in Hong Kong,” said one former HSBC executive. “So being given the title of chair of Hong Kong’s original bank is super sweet.”
Announcing Wong’s retirement, Quinn said his time working with Wong “helped shape my belief that HSBC has a bright future as a global bank that can bridge east and west”.
As the mediator between HSBC, mainland China, Hong Kong and the rest of the world — including sometimes volatile emerging markets — Wong is used to navigating conflicts. As mainland China grows in importance for HSBC, it is likely there will be more geopolitical fires to put out.
“We have been a guest in other people’s countries for the bank’s whole life,” said one former HSBC boss. “It is not surprising crises happen often.”