Public access to currently openly available private information of company directors listed in Hong Kong’s Companies’ Registry are to be restricted, the city’s government has announced.

Companies already listed in the registry will be allowed to block public access to the residential addresses of directors and company secretaries and their full identification numbers, while newly registered firms will be able to withhold the information from day one of being listed in the registry.

The Companies Registry. File photo: gov.hk.

Officials from the Financial Services and the Treasury Bureau have described the move as an attempt to strike a balance between transparency and the protection of privacy.

However, activist investor David Webb, who runs a free database of publicly available information of companies in Hong Kong and the United Kingdom, questioned the government’s decision, and said that the proposed changes. “will facilitate corruption, fraud and other crimes.”

“I don’t think the public needs to know where a director sleeps at night – that is a matter of personal security,” Webb told HKFP. “But they do need to know exactly who the director is, and only a full, unique ID number can achieve that.”

David Webb. Photo: David Webb.

“The ID is not a password, it is an identifier, a better version of your non-unique name. Sunshine is the best disinfectant. Allowing directors to obscure their identities reduces the ability of researchers and journalists to shine a light in shady places,” Webb added.

According to documents submitted by the bureau to the Legislative Council (LegCo), the new arrangements will be enforced in three phases:

  • Phase 1: Companies will no longer have to show the usual residential addresses of directors and their full identification numbers to the public.
  • Phase 2: Private information contained in all documents filed for registration from October next year will be protected from public inspection.
  • Phase 3: From December 2023, companies can apply to have private information in all documents filed before the commencement of phase 2 to be shielded from the public.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam in a press briefing ahead of the Executive Council meeting on March 30, 2021. Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

The proposed amendments will go through the negative vetting procedure in the legislature, meaning that the legislation will come into effect and continue to operate from the day it is Gazetted unless the LegCo passes a resolution to amend it.

In 2013, the government ditched plans to tighten public access to information on the Company Registry as they rewrote the Companies Ordinance after objection from the media, shareholders, and the private sector.

Lam: Journalists have no ‘prerogative’

Ahead of a meeting of the Executive Council on Tuesday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said that the amendments are designed to protect personal privacy, and that she did not see the need to include journalists in the list of individuals allowed to obtain company records.

“I can’t see why reporters have to have a prerogative,” said Lam. “Journalists requesting to see what others can’t, it’s a prerogative. In Hong Kong, no one has a prerogative.”

The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) slammed the government’s decision in a Facebook post on Monday, and said that the decision is another blow to Hong Kong’s press freedom.

“Press freedom is a human right protected under the Basic Law, the HKJA urged the government to immediately stop implementing the clause, and [HKJA] will study and follow up on the impact of the relevant legislation,” the post read.

“HKJA also urged the government to swiftly implement archival and freedom of information legislations, to protect the public’s right to know.”

Gordon Jones, Hong Kong’s registrar of companies from 1993 to 2007, told Bloomberg that he hoped the proposal would be repealed.

“In the 14 years in which I was the Registrar of Companies, I never received any complaints about these provisions or suggestions that they infringed directors’ privacy,” Jones told Bloomberg. “I would hope, however, that these misconceived and bad legislative proposals are not only deferred but also repealed.”

Candice Chau

Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.