Reality bites for jokester CEO

Editorial | Mary Ma 26 Nov 2021

No wonder JPMorgan chief executive Jamie Dimon is making headlines.

Soon after causing jaws to drop with his exceptional quarantine-free entry into Hong Kong for a mere 32-hour stay, Dimon stirred up a hornet's nest with a punchline he made at the Boston College Chief Executives Club.

"The [Chinese] Communist Party is celebrating its 100th year. So is JPMorgan."

So far so good at that point.

But then came the punchline: "And I'll make you a bet we last longer."

It was humorous enough to elicit laughs among the audience immediately in front of him. But he was so smart to notice that somebody over a thousand miles away in the East were also listening to what he was saying in Boston.

Hu Xijin, the Global Times editor, quickly hit back by tweeting: "And I bet the [Chinese Communist Party] will outlast the USA."

Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian called Dimon's jibe a "publicity stunt."

If Dimon's privileged access to Hong Kong forced Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to defend granting him the quarantine exemption, the banker's joke surely put pressure on nobody but the bank and himself.

Dimon quickly knew he made a bad joke. Otherwise, he would not have issued a public apology to say "I regret my recent comment."

He said it was 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."

Longevity of the Chinese Communist Party is an extremely sensitive political subject in the mainland. If foreign companies like investment bank UBS, fashion chain H&M or sports brand Nike had faced pushback for offending or challenging Chinese policies, Dimon's careless whisper could be even fatal because it challenged the party that is fundamental to the mainland's constitutional system.

It was the kind of joke that would have been easily laughed off in the West but not necessarily in the East, where the Chinese leadership may not have the appetite to appreciate it - or any of its kind.

Reactions from China were still relatively restrained as of yesterday.

Perhaps it was still early. Or maybe they were trying to figure out how to react since JPMorgan is one of America's largest banks and could be a chess piece that they could use in the battle with the Joe Biden administration.

JPMorgan's strategic role in the ongoing conflicts between the United States and China is reflected in the official approval that it has obtained to become the first foreign financial institution fully owning a securities brokerage in the mainland.

It's more likely than not there will be a price for the joke.

When a senior banker best known for making brash remarks over the years apologized swiftly, it would be impossible to miss the sense of crisis.

No one would have expected such a remark from a seasoned executive like Dimon.

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