Journalists in Hong Kong on Thursday slammed a government bid to restrict access to information about company directors, after a series of investigative reports into the hidden wealth of top Chinese officials.
Under the proposals put forward by the Financial Services and Treasury Bureau, corporate directors could apply to have their home address and identity card or passport numbers blocked from public view.
Such information can presently be accessed with a small fee, and has been used by reporters to unravel a web of secret assets showing the true wealth of China’s ruling elite and their families.
“We believe that the ability of foreign correspondents and journalists to legally access information about individuals and their companies is vital to our role of reporting on issues of public interest,” the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong said in a letter addressed to Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.
“We call on the government to withdraw this amendment and to maintain its support for the free flow of information in Hong Kong.”
Mak Yin-ting, the chairwoman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, said: “It’s a damage to the free flow of information, which is the bloodline of investigative reporting.”
Without the ability to access the ID numbers of company directors it would be difficult to confirm a person’s identity, she said. Dozens of people might share the same name with the same Chinese characters.
But the bureau said the amendment was needed “to strike a balance between the right of the public to information and the protection of privacy”.
It added that under the proposal the public would still be able to access a director’s correspondence address as well as three of the seven digits of their ID number.
“This should be enough for the public and the media to identify the persons concerned,” it said.
Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status has guarantees of civil liberties – including press freedom – not seen on the mainland.
The proposal comes amid concern in Hong Kong over meddling by Beijing in the city’s affairs, and after several reports focusing on the wealth and assets of China’s ruling elite grabbed worldwide headlines.
In September, Bloomberg used publicly available records to compile a list of investments made by China’s new leader Xi Jinping’s extended family, which the agency said totalled US$376 million.
A month later, The New York Times said financial records showed outgoing premier Wen Jiabao’s relatives had control of assets worth at least US$2.7 billion, a report Beijing branded as a smear.
Access to the websites of both Bloomberg and The New York Times on the mainland have since been blocked.
A large number of mainland companies are listed in Hong Kong, which acts as a gateway for international firms seeking to tap the booming mainland market.
The government is aiming for the new law to come into effect in the first quarter of next year.