The actions of the Hong Kong Companies Registry have raised questions over censorship after they grilled an online platform seeking to set up a company over their political stance.
The e-platform – the Coming Dawn – claimed the move suggested that “the freedom of doing business is now gone.”
Established early this year, the Coming Dawn is a citizen-led initiative that provides job matching services for Hong Kong protesters with the goal of bolstering the “yellow economic circle.”
The “yellow economy” encourages pro-democracy supporters to help like-minded businesses while boycotting those that support the police force, Beijing or a now-axed extradition bill that sparked a year-long protest movement last June. The China Liaison Office – Beijing’s organ in Hong Kong – has accused advocates of “violating” free-market principles.
The Coming Dawn said that it decided in late-March to register as a limited company after giving consideration to business sustainability,
But on Friday, the Companies Registry followed up in a letter referencing several statements given by the Coming Dawn founders in the media and on Facebook.
In an InMedia interview this April, the group’s two founders – who remained anonymous – described themselves as pro-independence supporters. They said their company’s name took inspiration from a speech by former localist leader Edward Leung: “The darkest hour is just before the dawn. But soon the dawn will come, and all oppressive regimes will fall.”
In another interview, the founders told Apple Daily that economic power could be effective in threatening the government and that “revolutions need money too.”
They also wrote in their Facebook biography that they wanted to help develop a strong “yellow economy” that would provide long-term support for “fellow protesters to engage in the war of resistance.”
The Companies Registry asked the Coming Dawn to clarify terms such as “fellow protesters,” “pro-independence,” “revolutions” and “war of resistance.” Citing sections 67 and 100 of the Companies Ordinance, the registry said it needed to inquire into their intended business nature and reasons for the proposed company name “The Coming Dawn Limited.”
Section 67 of the Companies Ordinance stipulates that a firm may only be formed for lawful purposes, while section 100 states that a company “must not be registered by a name that, in the registrar’s opinion, is offensive or otherwise contrary to the public interest.”
In response, the Coming Dawn said on Facebook on Sunday: “The letter is reminiscent of the ones written by the returning officers who disqualified electoral candidates.”
“Does it mean that the Chinese Communist Party’s approval is needed even to form an incorporated company and run a lawful business? Do we now have to self-censor in order to do business in Hong Kong?”
It also voiced concerns about the status of existing companies: “Will they be facing disqualifications based on the things they said?”
It is not the first time the Companies Registry has been accused of political censorship. In 2017, the registry refused to allow the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party to change the name of a shell company it purchased to “HKNP Limited” on the grounds that advocating independence was deemed contrary to the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution.
The following year, the registry used a similar reason to reject an application by pro-democracy party Demosisto to register as a limited company – nearly two years after the party submitted its application. The registry said the party’s political aspiration of “democratic self-determination” was in violation of the Basic Law.
In both cases, the registry determined that the two proposed companies did not have a lawful purpose.
Demosisto leader Joshua Wong said at the time that “in today’s political atmosphere, nobody knows where the red line will creep up to.”
The High Court gave permission in 2018 for Demosisto to appeal against the registry’s decision, but a hearing has yet to take place.