As the jet touched down, Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan Chase & Co, the largest bank in America, holding about $3.2-trillion in assets, became the first leader of a major Wall Street bank to visit the region since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
His itinerary for the trip included delivering a speech at a local town hall event in front of 4,000 bank employees and attending various meetings with employees and regulators, before jetting out again by Wednesday. He would spend a total of 32 hours in Hong Kong, with no need to endure a quarantine period upon entering the region, thanks to the exemption granted to him by Carrie Lam, Chief Executive of Hong Kong — the oddly business-like title given to the head of the territory’s government.
In terms of Covid-19 protocols, Hong Kong has one of the strictest quarantine mandates in place in the world, requiring all those who enter the city to quarantine for a period of 21 days in a designated hotel, at their own expense.
During those three weeks, travellers must undergo six compulsory PCR tests before being allowed to leave the quarantine hotel and must go for a seventh compulsory test at a community testing centre on the 26th day after their arrival. This process is non-negotiable, especially for travellers coming from nations that Hong Kong has classified as high-risk “Group A specified places”, including Jamie Dimon’s home country, the US.
Much to the chagrin of Hong Kong residents, who themselves must undergo this gruelling quarantine process every time they return home from travelling — even if fully vaccinated — Jamie Dimon was allowed to forgo the city’s strict quarantine measures, even though he was entering Hong Kong from a high-risk country.
“After all,” said Carrie Lam in defence of the government’s decision, “[JP Morgan] is a really big bank and it has vital business in Hong Kong”.
She stressed that the CEO’s trip was “considered to be in the interest of Hong Kong’s economic development”.
Three months prior, when actress Nicole Kidman visited Hong Kong to film a television series without having to quarantine, a similar explanation was provided, with the Hong Kong Commerce and Economic Development Bureau stating that the exemption had been granted to allow her to carry out “designated professional work” deemed economically important for Hong Kong.
To be sure, beyond the island’s strict quarantine measures, Hong Kong residents have plenty of other reasons to be disillusioned. While just a few years ago the region was considered to be free and democratic under the “one country, two systems” principle that had been in place since 1997, more recently, the social and political freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kong have been rapidly eroded.
Indeed, over the past year and a half, China — where President Xi Jinping was, on 11 November 2021, declared the first “leader for life” since Mao Zedong — has effectively terminated all of Hong Kong’s previously allowed democratic freedoms. This was perhaps most starkly demonstrated through the imposition of the 2019 Hong Kong extradition bill, which came into being amid the brutal suppression of pro-democratic protests in Hong Kong between 2019 and 2020.
Beyond the inconsistent administration of Covid regulations, Jamie Dimon’s non-quarantined visit to Hong Kong, even as the city pursues a “Covid Zero” strategy alongside China, underscores an ideological truth increasingly evident in international politics — that capitalism has no master.
Whereas in the early 1980s, sometime between when Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the 40th president of the United States and Madonna released her chart-topping pop hit Material Girl — an era during which the ideals of freedom and democracy were reaching their zenith — capitalism began to become untethered from its essential relationship with liberal democracy.
Before this inflection point, capitalism and democracy had worked hand-in-hand to further the ideals of individual freedoms across the world. Over time, however, capitalism in its most extreme form, as propagated by Milton Friedman and depicted in the celebration of greed in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987), became unbound from any larger ideological aspirations and began to work only for itself.
It is against this backdrop that American and European companies have made the decision to ignore corruption, authoritarianism, censure, torture and genocide as they continue to cultivate profitable business opportunities with countries such as China, Saudi Arabia, Syria, North Korea, Libya, Belarus and Russia.
Capitalism, if left to its own devices, untethered from some form of political ideology, can exhibit sociopathic behaviour. This danger was somewhat exposed when only one week after arriving safely back on American soil after his visit to Hong Kong, at an event in Boston, Jamie Dimon noted that this year, the Chinese Communist Party was celebrating its 100th year of existence, and that JP Morgan was simultaneously celebrating 100 years since the launch of its operations in Hong Kong.
“I’d make a bet that we last longer,” the CEO joked to the crowd, before self-consciously stating, “I can’t say that in China. They are probably listening anyway.”
Clearly realising the potential implications of his comment, especially given that in August, JP Morgan won approval from regulators to become the first fully foreign-owned securities brokerage in China, the following day, Dimon issued a statement of regret for his comment in Boston.
“I was trying to emphasise the strength and longevity of our company,” he said by way of justification, adding only in a later, second statement, that, “It’s never right to joke about or denigrate any group of people, whether it’s a country, its leadership, or any part of a society and culture. Speaking in that way can take away from constructive and thoughtful dialogue in society, which is needed now more than ever.” So far, there has been no official response from China on the matter.
While Jamie Dimon’s social faux pas would appear to be particularly obtuse from a commercial perspective, possibly even costing JP Morgan their brokerage licence, it is nevertheless the logical conclusion to the anchorless state in which capitalism now finds itself.
In a world where capitalism is no longer beholden to liberal democracy, and in which it is allowed to do business with any counterparty it chooses, no matter how authoritarian they may be, it becomes an independent philosophical entity — an ideology in and of itself.
In that world, the origin of Jamie Dimon’s joke about the relative permanence of JP Morgan compared to the Chinese Communist Party makes more sense. In his mind, the firm that is JP Morgan is equivalent, in a moral and philosophical sense, to the Chinese Communist Party.
In many ways, witnessing the relentless erosion of democracy the world over — more recently in Belarus, South Sudan, Hong Kong and Turkey — and simultaneously watching the tech billionaires battle with each other over their space exploration pursuits — while politicking on green energy, personal tax and cryptocurrency on Twitter — the thought occurs that Jamie Dimon may nevertheless be right. BM/DM