U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has openly criticized British investment bank HSBC for its alleged treatment of pro-democracy customers in Hong Kong. The official claimed that China had likely "bullied" the UK company into supporting its agenda.

On Wednesday, Pompeo exclaimed that corporations and free nations must not be forced into supporting political agendas. He revealed that he had received reports that HSBC was actively sanctioning some of its customers that are linked to pro-democracy movements in the Chinese city. He detailed that some executives of Next Media, which publishes the Apple Daily newspaper, were being barred from accessing their accounts.

Pompeo openly accused HSBC of maintaining the accounts of individuals who have been found guilty of denying Hong Kong residents their freedom, while shutting down the accounts of those who are known affiliates of pro-democracy movements.

Next Media, which is now called Next Digital, had become the target of Chinese authorities after its owner media, tycoon Jimmy Lai, used his influence to protest against the government. Lai is publicly vocal about his opposition to the city's new security law. Lai was arrested on August 10 after he was found guilty of violating the law.

Following his arrest, HSBC froze Lai's personal and private business accounts. The bank also froze Lai's credit card accounts along with the accounts of his senior executive Mark Simon. HSBC did not freeze Next Digital's main business accounts.

HSBC has been caught in the crossfire of the growing political dispute between China and the United States. The company has been playing a dangerous balancing act in an attempt to please both sides. HSBC desperately needs to be on China's good side so that it can maintain its access to the lucrative Chinese markets. At the same time, the bank has to appease lawmakers and regulators in the United States to avoid becoming the target of new sanctions.

Last month, British and U.S. officials criticized HSBC and fellow currency issuer Standard Chartered for supporting the implementation of China's national security law on its territory. Since its implementation, international banks in Hong Kong have begun to more closely examine their clients to determine if they have ties to any pro-democracy or anti-China movements.