SMEs join chorus of concern over hiding of directors' identity

Transparency at the heart of city's success as commercial hub, says trade group, and rule change may make doing business harder

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 January, 2013, 5:00am

They are just a few letters and digits, but the government's bid to hide the full identification numbers and home addresses of company directors from a public database may hurt the city's reputation as a safe and reliable place to do business, critics of the proposal say.

The changes to the Companies Registry, set to start next year, will also hinder researchers studying possible collusion between officials and industry power brokers, academics say.

"Hong Kong has been so successful because of its transparency," said Stephen Kwok Chun-pong, president of the Small and Medium Enterprises Association, yesterday. "If we make it so that such information is not going to be public, it may affect the business transactions, especially for international businesses in Hong Kong."

Kwok said a survey of the association's members found that more than 60 per cent were against the changes because it would damage the city's name as a reliable place for business. "When we are doing business, we can always search for this information from the public domain. This is very important," he said.

Supporters of the proposal - such as Allan Chiang Yam-wang, the privacy commissioner for personal data - say it safeguards the people's privacy, but Brian Fong Chi-hang, who teaches politics and public administration at City University, said this should not be the top priority.

"Free flow of information should be more important as it is our tradition and also one of our competitive advantages," said Fong. "When you compare Hong Kong to most other Asian societies, we don't have many barriers to getting information … If we can't access this information, it will affect a lot of people: academics, journalists, and also business investors when they want to check the backgrounds of potential business partners."

Last year, Fong started a long-term project to analyse the relationship between lawmakers from pro-business political parties, such as the Liberal Party, and members of the city's four most influential business groups, which included the General Chamber of Commerce, the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce and the Chinese Manufacturers' Association.

To check where there were any overlapping directorships, Fong dug through the annual returns of dozens of companies from 1994 - when the Liberal Party was formed - to 2010, using the Companies Registry's online platform.

With just their full HKID numbers and home addresses, he could easily verify company directors and their links to business groups or political parties by downloading the documents, some at just HK$20 per copy and available within minutes.

"The information was very important because if we can't get access to this, it is almost impossible to look at overlapping directorships of pro-business lawmakers and members of chambers of commerce," he said.

Fong also criticised the lack of public discussion leading up to the proposal. But the government said it has carried out extensive consultation on the wider rewrite of the Companies Ordinance since 2009.

Repeated requests to interview the Registrar of Companies Ada Chung Lai-ling was declined by the Financial Services and Treasury Bureau, with no reason given for the refusal.