Billions in International Pension Funds Support Abuses in China; Hong Kongers Flee With Their Own Pensions

A report by the NGO Hong Kong Watch reveals that numerous major international pension funds have been heavily invested in Chinese companies connected to serious human rights issues. Some of these pension holders, such as members of the UK parliament, are gradually confronting their complicity in financing these abuses and calling for change. While money from international pension funds continues to flow into China despite allegations of human rights abuses, money from Hong Kong’s own pension funds have flown out in recent months, as a result of similar issues. 

Hong Kong Watch’s report provided a detailed picture of the international pension funds’ Chinese investments. The 84-page report included information on the international pension funds involved, their public “Environmental, Social, and Governance” (ESG) commitments, their Chinese investment portfolios, statistics on the tens of billions of dollars they collectively invested, and the troubling human rights records of notable Chinese companies. Through the lenses of human rights, environmental protection, and national security, the report identifies four types of problematic Chinese firms receiving investment from international pension funds: those blacklisted by the U.S. government for ties to the PLA or human rights abuses in Xinjiang; other Chinese tech firms complicit in human rights abuses in Xinjiang; Chinese state-owned banks that bankroll state-owned enterprises; and Chinese fossil fuel giants. 

The report spotlights Alibaba and Tencent as major investment destinations of concern, due to their role in alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang and other parts of China. As the report notes, Alibaba has produced facial recognition software that specifically targets Uyghurs and helped build the Xinjiang internment camps. Tencent owns WeChat, which enables the CCP’s extensive censorship and surveillance of the app’s 1.25 billion users.

A Hong Kong Watch statement about the report discussed the gap between ESG commitments and actual investments, and between investors and the public:

A new report by Hong Kong Watch shows that, despite lip-service to the importance of responsible investing and ESG priorities, major international pension funds are heavily invested in Chinese companies with problematic human rights records. 

Hong Kong Watch’s new report considers the paradox that investment into China has soared in the era of ethical investment. More money is being invested in China by Western pension funds, sovereign wealth funds and other institutional investors than ever before. 

[…] Johnny Patterson, Policy Director of Hong Kong Watch, says: “There is a clear knowledge gap between financial professionals who know that enormous amounts of the money of ordinary people, institutional investment, pensions and government funding is being invested in China, and the members of the public, media and policy makers who would have serious ethical and practical reservations about what seems to be a reckless and problematic course of action. This information gap has provided cover for financial institutions to pursue profit without regard for the social impacts of their ties with firms that are closely affiliated with egregious rights abuses in Hong Kong or Xinjiang.” [Source]

The U.K. parliament’s pension fund was one of those singled out by the report. According to Hong Kong Watch, the fund had at least $1.23 million invested in Alibaba and $3.16 million in Tencent, along with other investments in China Construction Bank and Sinopec. In response to the report, 117 British Members of Parliament and 20 members of the House of Lords penned a letter to the fund’s trustees urging the fund to divest from Chinese companies accused of being complicit in human rights violations or having ties to Beijing. Patrick Wintour from the Guardian reported on the signatories and their motivation to take action

The signatories include Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, and the former Conservative cabinet ministers Liam Fox, Iain Duncan Smith and Norman Tebbit. Others include the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesperson, Layla Moran, and the shadow foreign affairs minister, Stephen Kinnock. The Conservative MP David Amess was also a signatory, one of his last political acts before his death on Friday.

[…] The Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh, a leading signatory and member of the Treasury select committee, said: “When the world is presented with such overwhelming evidence of gross human rights abuses, nobody can turn a blind eye.

“But we must also ask ourselves what it means to be complicit and that’s why I’m horrified to learn that our own pension fund is invested in Chinese institutions with close ties to the state. If we look on, history will condemn our unforgivable cowardice and ask why those in power did not act. Warm words are simply not enough because this time no one can say that they did not know.” [Source]

Britain provides an interesting case study for how foreign governments might respond to revelations of their financial entanglement in problematic Chinese firms. The British government is well aware of the issues: in March, the U.K. Foreign Secretary sanctioned four Chinese officials deemed responsible for the alleged genocide against Uyghurs in Xinjiang, which led to the Chinese government relatiating with sanctions against five British Members of Parliament. In April, the House of Commons passed a motion declaring the Chinese government’s policies in Xinjiang a genocide. In September, the British Parliament symbolically banned Chinese ambassador Zheng Zeguang from entering parliament. But political momentum for protecting human rights may not necessarily produce a change in British investments, according to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who stated this week that the U.K. government will not “pitchfork away every [investment] overture from China.” 

Beyond Britain, the report spotlights several other governments whose pension fund investments in China are even more troubling. The Australian Super Fund has invested about US$2.4 million in Hikvision and almost US$900,000 in iFlytek, two Chinese companies that have developed surveillance software to help the Chinese government target Uyghurs in Xinjiang; the fund has also invested US$403 million to Alibaba and US$293 million to Tencent, orders of magnitude higher than the British parliament. In Asia, the Japanese government’s pension fund has invested US$2.04 billion to Alibaba and US$1.74 billion to Tencent, and the National Pension Service of South Korea has invested the most out of all of the funds analyzed in the report: US$12.15 billion in Alibaba and US$9.11 billion in Tencent. In North America, Canada’s Pension Plan Investment Board has invested US$2.23 billion in Alibaba and US$3.51 billion in Tencent, and Canada’s British Columbia Investment Management Corporation has invested a combined total of US$880,000 million in Alibaba and Tencent. 

In the U.S., pension funds at Princeton and Columbia University are similarly complicit. Dennis Kwok and Johnny Patterson highlighted those funds’ investments in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece:

A new Hong Kong Watch report on institutional investment around the world has implications for U.S. retirement investors. Consider one example: Vanguard manages academic and staff retirement funds for several elite U.S. institutions, including Princeton and Columbia. Between 22% and 35% of each retirement fund is allocated to the Vanguard Total International Stock Index Fund, depending on the retirement date of pensioners. As of July 31, this fund, which isn’t ESG-driven, held $4.4 billion in Alibaba, $4.6 billion in Tencent, $17.3 million in Iflytek, $7.6 million in Dahua Technology, $23 million in the Aviation Industry Corp. of China, and nearly $2 billion in China’s top four state-run banks. [Source]

​​

Institutional InvestorFunds Invested in AlibabaFunds Invested in TencentOther key Chinese Equities
UK Parliamentary Contributory Pension Fund£0.9m (US$1.23m)£2.3m (US$3.16m)China Construction Bank, Sinopec, CNOOC (Until 2019)
UK Universities Superannuation Scheme£371.79m (US$511m)£413.96m (US$569m)China Construction Bank, Sinopec
Australian Super Fund (Balanced pre-mixed investment option)AU$563m (US$403m)AU$409m (US$293m)Bank of China (AU$4.9m), China Construction Bank (AU$9m), Hikvision (AU$3.2m), Iflytek (AU$1.2m), China Mobile (AU$13.3m)
Norwegian Sovereign Wealth FundUS$6.7bnUS$5.9bnSinopec (US$205m), Baidu (US$759m), Bank of China (US$261m), China Construction Bank (US$1bn), China Mobile (US$371m), SMIC (US$92m), China Unicom (US$42m)
New Zealand Superannuation FundNZ$93.47m (US$64.68m)NZ$87.95m (US$60.87m)14 entities sanctioned by US including: AVIC (NZ$250,933), China Communications Construction Co. (NZ$472,202), China Mobile (NZ$7,151,619), Hikvision (NZ$961,223), China Unicom (NZ$219,492), SMIC (NZ$2,306,284), Zhejiang Dahua Technology (NZ$219,670).
Others including: iFlytek (NZ$229,702), Bank of China (NZ$5,871,296), China Construction Bank (NZ$15,384,971)
BCI (Canada)CA$1.1bn in the two combined (Mar,2020) (US$887m)March 2020: China Communication Construction Group (CA$2m), CNOOC (CA$56.1m), Hikvision (CA$45.3m), China Mobile (CA$104.6m), Zhejiang Dahua Tech (CA$14.42m), China Construction bank (CA$91.98m)
CDPQ (Canada)CA$938.6m (US$744m)CA$666.9m (US$529m)18 companies on the US sanctions list, including: AVIC, CNOOC Ltd, CoStar Group Inc, Inner Mongolia First Machinery Group Co, Zhejiang Dahua Technology Co, and Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp.
Japan Government Pension Investment Fund£2.57bn (US$2.04bn)£2.2bn (US$1.74bn)Sinopec (£62 million)

 

While money has poured into China from foreign pension funds, money is flowing out of Hong Kong’s. Inflows into Hong Kong’s pension fund began declining in the second quarter of 2020, and this quarter they reached their lowest point in three years. The drop coincides with the deteriorating human rights situation under the National Security Law, which has pushed over 90,000 Hong Kong citizens to emigrate and cut the city’s population by 1.2 percent. Reuters reported on the Hong Kong pension fund capital flight:

Residents leaving Hong Kong withdrew HK$2.095 billion ($270 million) from Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) pension accounts in the second quarter, up 111.6% from the same period in 2020.

A sweeping security law imposed on Hong Kong in June 2020, aimed at anything Beijing regards as subversion, secession or terrorism, prompted residents of the city to move tens of billions of dollars to other countries including Canada, where thousands hope to forge a new future. read more

A total of 8,000 claims were made during the second quarter of 2021, data from the Mandatory Provident Fund Schemes Authority on Tuesday showed. That compared with 6,000 claims during the same period in 2020, when HK$990 million was withdrawn. (https://bit.ly/3n8NCzP).

There were 7,700 claims during the first quarter of 2021, when HK$1.931 billion was withdrawn, marking a rise of 49.1% from the same quarter in 2020. [Source]

International criticism on human rights abuses in China has been fierce and widespread. But many of the same people and institutions that voice this criticism allow their pensions to pump more investment into Chinese firms involved in these very same human rights abuses:

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