Hong Kong Limits Public Information as China Exerts Control

Hong Kong institutions are further restricting public access to information, raising concerns over transparency as China increases its grip over the Asian financial hub.

The most significant change is a government proposal to restrict public access to the Companies Registry, limiting the information to correspondence addresses -- as opposed to personal residences -- and only partial ID numbers.

On Wednesday, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong, called on the government to halt the move, arguing “such changes will be harmful to press freedom and transparency in the city” and will remove a tool also regularly used by financial, legal and compliance professionals.

“The companies registry is an important tool long used by journalists to improve accountability, expose wrongdoing, and bring to light important matters of public concern,” the press club said.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam this week refused to allow any exemptions for journalists for use in the companies registry. “I do not see why journalists should have the privilege,” she said. The government has previously said there has been “rising social concern over whether personal data contained in public registers are adequately protected, especially in the light of increased reported cases of doxxing and personal data misuse.”

China has steadily increased its control over Hong Kong since 2019 pro-democracy protests. After imposing a sweeping national security law last year, this week Chinese lawmakers approved a drastic overhaul of the city’s elections to ensure that only Beijing loyalists can take power.

‘Facilitate Corruption’

Frequently used by journalists, researchers, and shareholder advocacy groups, Hong Kong’s public registries have helped bring transparency and accountability to official and corporate dealings. But they can also result in embarrassing disclosures highlighting the relationships between government officials in Beijing, their relatives and companies in which they have financial interests.

Restricting information in the Companies Registry will reduce financial transparency in Hong Kong, said David Webb, a Hong Kong-based activist investor.

“Allowing directors to obscure their identities reduces the ability of researchers and journalists to shine a light in shady places,” Webb said in an email. “The proposed law will facilitate corruption, fraud and other crimes, and make it easier for directors to hide from creditors.”

Due Diligence

The latest effort to limit personal details came on Tuesday, when the judiciary decided to start removing key information from indictments, such as the defendant’s date of birth, nationality, occupation and home address, as well as the name of the police officer in charge of the case. Last November, a local journalist who contributed to a report on police violence during 2019 protests was also arrested and put on trial for using a public database to search for a car license plate.

In a statement to Bloomberg, the judiciary said it’s limiting the publication of personal details because releasing such information “may impair the proper execution of judicial work and is out of proportion to the reasonable reasons for judicial disclosure.”

The new efforts to restrict public access to information will worsen Hong Kong’s corporate governance risk profile, said Kaho Yu, the principal Asia analyst at advisory firm Verisk Maplecroft.

“The proposed restriction does not only impact media operations, but also makes it more difficult for financial institutions to effectively carry out customer due diligence and transaction investigation,” Yu said. He added that Hong Kong “will likely become closer to other offshore jurisdictions like the Cayman Islands or the British Virgin Islands, attracting companies that want to be shielded from the public monitoring of their activities.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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