HSBC refuses to open bank account for Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei

Venus Wu

HONG KONG, April 19 (Reuters) - Chinese dissident artist Ai

Weiwei said on Wednesday global banking giant HSBC Holdings Plc

refused to open a personal bank account for him in Hong

Kong for what he assumed were political reasons, a conjecture

the bank dismissed.

The burly, bearded artist, who was in the financial hub for

three days to visit his exhibition, said he did not try to open

accounts at other banks, but that he had no difficulty in the

past when he opened a bank account in Beijing.

Ai, arguably one of the world's most high-profile

contemporary artists and a well-known critic of China, said an

HSBC staff member told him he had provided all the necessary

documents, but still rejected his application.

"I was surprised, I asked him why, he said it was for

commercial reasons," Ai told Reuters. "He said you just can't

open an account here ... It's very hard to imagine it's not due

to a political reason. But I have no evidence," he added.

Confidentiality concerns did not allow HSBC to discuss

individual cases, the bank said in a written reply to Reuters.

"However, HSBC does not decline to open bank accounts

because of individuals' political views," it said.

HSBC is among many banks in the region to have stepped up

oversight of bank accounts to help guard against money

laundering and terrorist financing.

Hong Kong leader-elect Carrie Lam has previously

acknowledged the difficulties some foreigners and overseas

businesses face in opening bank accounts there.

Ai described his dealings with HSBC on social media,

prompting criticism of the bank and renewed debate over whether

big corporations in Hong Kong are wary of offending China.

The former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in

1997, has experienced a tumultuous few years, with pro-democracy

protests quelled in what many residents view as creeping

interference by Beijing in its affairs.

In 2015, toymaker Lego refused a bulk order of toy bricks by

the artist because it would not endorse their use in projects

with "a political agenda." It later backed down, saying it would

no longer ask customers their plans for the product.

Ai, who helped design Beijing's "Bird's Nest" stadium for

the 2008 Olympics, lost favour with the Chinese government when

he began campaigning for justice for children crushed to death

by shoddily constructed buildings in an earthquake that year.

Since leaving China in the summer of 2015, the prominent

advocate for human rights has been based largely in the German

capital of Berlin.

(Reporting by Venus Wu; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and)