HONG KONG — Journalists in Hong Kong have issued a petition urging the government to scrap a proposed law limiting the personal data corporate directors must make publicly available. Critics argue the amendment will restrict press freedom and protect potentially corrupt directors from public scrutiny of their business holdings.
The proposed amendment would end the obligation for business directors to publish home addresses and full identity card numbers on a publicly accessible corporate register. The plan will be debated in the Hong Kong legislature before May, and could come into effect early next year.
Mak Yin-ting, head of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, is the organizer of a petition to scrap the amendment. She says despite its reputation for business transparency, Hong Kong is an increasingly popular destination for investors seeking to conceal assets.
“This amendment will hinder investigative reporting very much. We find the government is more and more stringent on the free flow of information," said Mak. "The public interest is being jeopardized.”
While Hong Kong enjoys considerable legal and political autonomy from Beijing, critics express concerns the mainland government is pressuring Hong Kong legislators to enact the amendment.
The debate comes just months after U.S. media outlets Bloomberg and The New York Times embarrassed China’s leadership with allegations of corruption that were at least partially substantiated by researching Hong Kong’s corporate databases.
The research indicated that multi-billion-dollar business interests are vested in the families of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and president-designate Xi Jinping.
Mak says the websites of both media organizations remain blocked in China.
“The review of the channeling of state wealth to Hong Kong via leaders’ families is a legitimate job done by journalists. So we urge the Chinese government to lift the ban as soon as possible to show the world China is allowing its people freedom of the press,” she said.
Organizations including the Hong Kong Association of Banks - a statutory body representing domestic and international finance houses - agree that there is merit in maintaining public access to data in order to preserve Hong Kong’s reputation for corporate transparency.
However, supporters of the amendment argue a company director should be entitled to keep their home address and full ID number private.
“People seem to be fixated on needing to know where a director lives. Under the changes, [companies] still need to furnish an official address … the full name of the directors and some digits of the ID card," said Mike Wong, chief executive of the Chamber of Hong Kong Listed Companies. "This is a privacy right a lot of people are advocating. Why would directors be any different?”
The petition, published in local newspapers Monday, represents just the latest public skirmish for Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying. Thousands took to the streets this month accusing the Beijing-backed appointee of lacking the vision either to alleviate growing poverty in the city or to implement universal voting rights. Recent opinion polls indicate Leung’s popularity has tumbled below 30 percent since his first policy address.