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Main concern: A woman walking past a HSBC Bank branch in Paris. Ping An is particularly disappointed by HSBC’s underperformance compared with other Asia-focused banks and a suspension of dividends during the pandemic. — Reuters

PETER Ma isn’t afraid of dramatic change.

In the past three years, the 66-year-old chairman of China’s biggest insurer has slashed more than 800,000 roles, or 60% of his army of life insurance agents, in a painful reform to boost productivity and restore value for Ping An Insurance (Group) Co.

He’s repeatedly restructured the company he built over three decades, shuttering unpromising businesses and striking out into new areas, in his pursuit of growth.

Now Ma’s set sights on splitting up Europe’s largest bank, HSBC Holdings Plc, where Ping An has a major stake.

Concern about the lender’s ability to handle geopolitical risk – it’s based in London but counts Hong Kong as its biggest market – and disappointment in its business performance sit at the heart of Ping An’s push, according to a person familiar with the insurer’s thinking, who requested not to be named because the matter is private.

From behind the scenes, Ma has set in motion a tussle that’s fired up retail shareholders in Hong Kong, a third of HSBC’s investor base. The schism with the bank’s management dovetails with Beijing’s tightening grip on the former British colony.

“This public rift is more than uncommon, it’s unique,” Michael Sheridan, author of “The Gate to China, a new history of the People’s Republic and Hong Kong.”

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“To see a giant Chinese insurer taking on the dominant bank in Hong Kong signifies a tactical change with huge implications. This is not purely about money, it’s about power and who rules the financial landscape in China’s international gateway.”

For its part, HSBC has pushed back, most recently at a chaotic shareholder meeting in Hong Kong where protesters held up placards in support of Ping An’s stance.

Chairman Mark Tucker and chief executive officer Noel Quinn argued that an Asian carve-out plan was unworkable and posed a major risk to the company. It would also put Hong Kong’s place as a global financial centre at risk, Quinn warned.

Long romance

On Thursday, a person familiar with the insurer’s thinking said HSBC was overstating the challenges of a spin-off, and was in urgent need of radical change.

A closer look at Ping An’s reticent chairman provides clues on what Ma envisions for the 157-year-old lender.

The son of People’s Liberation Army officers, Ma never received a college degree due to the Cultural Revolution that disrupted China’s education system. He learned English by memorising the dictionary, and built Ping An into the world’s second-largest insurer from scratch.

He designed almost all its new businesses, often beginning with sketches of business models, like how he played with self-made toys during his childhood.

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