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Hong Kong Exchange Chairman Supportive of National Security Law

Kiuyan Wong and David Ingles

(Bloomberg) -- Like many in Hong Kong, the chairman of the stock exchange was caught off guard when China revealed last month it would enact new security legislation in the former British colony. And like many of the city’s business elite, she’s supportive.

While details aren’t known yet, the bill will bring stability without jeopardizing Hong Kong’s core values of the rule of law, fair and transparent markets and a level playing field, Hong Kong Exchanges & Clearing Ltd. Chairman Laura Cha said in an interview with Bloomberg Television.

“There was a lot of uncertainty about the law and order,” said Cha, who’s also a member of the city’s Executive Council. The proposed legislation “certainly creates the clarity and stability for us to move forward,” she said.

The Chinese bill would ban subversion, secession, terrorism and foreign interference in the city, and critics say would restrict freedoms in the financial hub. The move has rekindled street protests and sparked condemnation abroad, with the U.S. deciding to begin the process of stripping some of Hong Kong’s privileged trade status.

It has also forced businesses to choose sides. Banking giant HSBC Holdings Plc, which counts Hong Kong as its biggest market, earlier this month backed the legislation amid pressure in China. That decision has drawn fierce criticism from one of its largest shareholders and also opened up internal fault lines at the lender, with many Hong Kong employees chafing at the move. U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo last week slammed HSBC, saying the lender is kowtowing to China.

Cha, who’s also on the board of directors at HSBC, said companies operating in multiple jurisdiction often find it difficult to navigate the current geopolitical environment.

“It will be up to the company to decide what would be best for them,” said Cha, when asked about businesses having to pick a side. Concerns will be addressed when the details of the law come out and Hong Kong will remain a vital link between China and the West, she said.

Foreign investors can trust that the governing structure of “One Country, Two Systems” will protect the core values of Hong Kong, something “made clear by the central government as well,” said Cha, who’s also a non-official member of the Executive Council, the city’s cabinet.

The bill stirred up tension just as HKEX was expecting to get a bump in business as U.S. lawmakers look at legislation that could make it more difficult for Chinese companies to list there, and potentially lead to delistings. The bourse has seen a jump in secondary share sales by Chinese companies, with NetEase Inc. and JD.com raising billions of dollars this month.

HKEX is now hoping for a better year this year than in 2019, allowing it to maintain the top spot for global fund raising, Cha said.

HKEX is expanding its product line from a predominant equity focus. It last month brokered a deal with MSCI Inc. to move its licensing suite to Hong Kong from Singapore, to allow trading of 37 index futures and options.

“It’s a big win for us,” said Cha, who predicted the products will be launched in batches later this year.

She’s also leading the work to replace Chief Executive Officer Charles Li, who has announced he will step down as his contract expired in Oct. 2021. The bourse is working “both internally and externally” in its search, Cha said.

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