Wall Street chiefs to share stage with Hong Kong's sanctioned leader

Some of the world's top bankers will attend a Hong Kong finance summit on Wednesday, defying criticism by US lawmakers over their decision to share a stage with the city's leader who is sanctioned by Washington.

Hong Kong is hosting a week of high profile events after lifting years of pandemic travel curbs that tarnished the city's business-friendly reputation, sparked an exodus of talent and battered its economy.

The marquee event is a summit on Wednesday attended by some 200 finance executives including some of Wall Street's leading luminaries.

Among those due to speak are Goldman Sachs head David Solomon, Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman, Blackrock president Rob Kapito and JP Morgan Chase counterpart Daniel Pinto.

The glitzy gathering at the Four Seasons hotel is being heralded by Hong Kong leader John Lee, who will give the opening speech, as proof that the previously shuttered Asian finance hub is back in business.

"After three years of pandemic, Hong Kong is reconnecting with the world," Lee told reporters on Tuesday.

But the event is not without controversy.

The leaders of the bipartisan US Congressional-Executive Commission on China have called on Wall Street executives not to attend, accusing them of "whitewashing human rights violations" and giving political cover to Lee.

Lee, a former security chief who took office this year, is among Chinese officials sanctioned by Washington for cracking down on rights in Hong Kong after huge democracy protests, unable to hold accounts with the same banking giants attending the summit.

The row illustrates the tightrope faced by multinationals in Hong Kong, which is both a lucrative business gateway for China and a flashpoint in increasingly tense relations between Beijing and Western powers.

JP Morgan's asset and wealth management head Mary Callahan Erdoes described Hong Kong as a "super-connector" for businesses wanting to access China, adding that the city "never disappeared" during the pandemic.

"There hasn't been a city in the East that has emerged in the same way that Hong Kong has," she told the South China Morning Post in an interview published Tuesday.

- Unsettled economic waters -

The summit comes at a time of uncertainty over China's economy under President Xi Jinping.

Xi, who secured a norm-breaking third term last month, has overseen regulatory crackdowns clipping the wings of some major Chinese companies and is still sticking to a strict zero-Covid strategy.

Hong Kong's China-dependent economy saw gross domestic product plunge 4.5 percent in the third quarter of this year, according to preliminary figures released Tuesday.

Its stock exchange is among the world's worst performers, down more than 50 percent this year to levels last seen in 2009.

Lee's opening speech will be followed by recorded interviews with three mainland officials involved in regulation, including Yi Gang, the governor of China's central bank.

That will be followed by a panel titled "Navigating Through Uncertainty" featuring senior executives from Morgan Stanley, Blackstone, UBS, Goldman Sachs and Bank of China president Liu Jin.

Hong Kong finance chief Paul Chan is also expected to give a speech but it is unclear if he will be able to attend in person after he caught the coronavirus overseas.

While Hong Kong scrapped mandatory quarantine in September -- a key demand of businesses -- it maintains layers of pandemic restrictions long since abandoned by almost everywhere else.

Overseas arrivals must undergo frequent testing and are unable to go to bars and restaurants for their first three days in the city.

Restrictions on various gatherings remain and masks are compulsory, including outdoors.