When Amnesty International U.S.A. started looking for a new headquarters in New York City, the human rights group settled on office space in a modest skyscraper in Lower Manhattan known as Wall Street Plaza.
But just as the organization was about to sign a lease last week, the building’s owner said that its new parent company, a giant shipping conglomerate owned by the Chinese government, decided to veto the offer.
The company, Cosco Shipping, did not want the United States chapter of Amnesty International, which has produced scathing reports highlighting human rights abuses in China, as a tenant, according to the group.
Amnesty International U.S.A. said it was told the organization was “not the best tenant” for a building owned by a Chinese state-owned enterprise, in a turnabout that suggests the reach of the Communist Party during a time of intense economic dispute with the United States, and its ability to exert power in America.
“We were planning to sign the lease until we were told a week ago by our contact at Orient Overseas — who owns the building — that his bosses were declining,’’ said Robyn Shepherd, a spokeswoman at Amnesty International U.S.A.
“His response was along the lines that we weren’t the best tenant for a building owned by a Chinese S.O.E., and that we probably wouldn’t want to be a tenant there anyway, given the owners.”
Ms. Shepherd was referring to the Chinese state-owned enterprise, Cosco Shipping, which did not respond to messages seeking comment. A woman who answered the phone at Cosco’s offices in Shanghai said nobody was immediately available to comment.
Amnesty International U.S.A. had expected to relocate employees from its New York offices — among the agency’s largest in the United States — to Wall Street Plaza, a 33-story building on Pine Street that opened in 1973. Orient Overseas Associates, a subsidiary of a Hong Kong shipping company, Orient Overseas Container Line, had owned the Pine Street building for nearly 50 years.
But in 2017, Cosco Shipping acquired Orient Overseas in a $6.3 billion deal that made it one of the largest container shipping operators in the world and one of the largest shipping import companies in the United States. Cosco Shipping also took ownership of Orient’s real estate investments, including 88 Pine Street, its only property in the United States.
Ms. Shepherd said that the organization did not discover Cosco Shipping’s connections to Wall Street Plaza until its lease was denied.
Amnesty International, which is based in London, does not have a permanent presence in China and its researchers have been denied entry into some parts of the country. In one of its latest reports, Amnesty International highlighted discriminatory laws that the group said threatened the health and safety of transgender people living there.
Amnesty International has also been outspoken about the Communist Party’s detention of ethnic Uighur Muslims in far western China internment camps. Amnesty International researchers have been denied access to the network of camps in the Xinjiang region, the group said.
Cosco Shipping, which now oversees the building’s owner, is one of the biggest and most important state-owned companies in China. As one of about 100 state-owned companies administered directly by the central government, its top officials are handpicked by the Communist Party.
Cosco’s chairman, Xu Lirong, is also a delegate to China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, and in 2017 was a delegate to the 19th Communist Party Congress, the conclave held every five years that picks the ruling party’s top leaders.
In Hong Kong, which has been controlled by China since the end of the British colonial era there in 1997, Tung Chee-hwa, the chairman of Orient Overseas whose father founded the company, was selected to be the first chief executive under Communist rule.
Orient Overseas had conducted business for years in the United States before Cosco Shipping bought it. Orient operated the Long Beach Container Terminal for three decades at the Port of Long Beach in California, one of the world’s busiest.
The merger of Cosco Shipping and Orient Overseas prompted the Treasury Department to review the deal for potential national security concerns. While the federal government ultimately approved it, Cosco agreed to sell the Long Beach Container Terminal. The company announced last week it had reached a deal to sell it for nearly $1.8 billion.
Amnesty International’s headquarters in New York are in Chelsea and its national offices are in Washington. Ms. Shepherd said Amnesty International U.S.A. was exploring other lease options in New York.