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Hong Kong limits public information as China exercises control

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Hong Kong institutions are further restricting public access to information, raising concerns about transparency as China increases its grip on the Asian financial center.

The most significant change is a government proposal to restrict public access to the company register, limiting information to correspondence addresses – as opposed to personal residences – and only partial identification numbers.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong, on Wednesday called on the government to end the move, arguing that “such changes would undermine press freedom and transparency in the city” and will also regularly remove a tool. used by financial, legal and compliance professionals.

“The business register is an important tool long used by journalists to improve accountability, expose wrongdoing and highlight important issues of public interest,” the press club said.

This week, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam refused to allow exemptions for journalists to use in the business register. “I don’t see why journalists should have this privilege,” she said. The government previously said there was “growing social concern over whether personal data in public registers is properly protected, especially in light of the increase in reported cases of doxxing and misuse. personal data ”.

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China has steadily increased its control over Hong Kong since the 2019 pro-democracy protests. After imposing a sweeping national security law last year, Chinese lawmakers this week approved a radical overhaul of the city’s elections to ensure that only Beijing loyalists can take power.

Frequently used by journalists, researchers, and shareholder advocacy groups, Hong Kong’s public registers have helped bring transparency and accountability to official and corporate transactions. But they can also lead to embarrassing revelations highlighting the relationships between Beijing government officials, their relatives, and companies in which they have financial interests.

Restricting information in the company register will reduce financial transparency in Hong Kong, said David Webb, a Hong Kong-based activist investor.

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“Allowing administrators to obscure their identities reduces the ability of researchers and journalists to shine light in shady places,” Webb said in an email. “The bill will facilitate corruption, fraud and other crimes, and make it easier for directors to hide from creditors.”

The latest push to limit personal data came on Tuesday, when the courts decided to start removing key information from indictments, such as date of birth, nationality, occupation and home address. the accused, as well as the name of the police officer in charge of the case. Last November, a local journalist who contributed to a report on police violence during the 2019 protests was also arrested and brought to justice for using a public database to search for a car license plate.

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In a statement to Bloomberg, the judiciary said it was limiting the publication of personal data because disclosure of such information “may interfere with the proper performance of judicial work and is disproportionate to reasonable grounds for judicial disclosure.”

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New efforts to restrict public access to information will worsen the risk profile of corporate governance in Hong Kong, said Kaho Yu, senior Asian analyst at consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.

“The proposed restriction not only impacts media operations, but also makes it more difficult for financial institutions to effectively conduct customer due diligence and transaction investigation,” Yu said. He added that Hong Kong “is likely to move closer to other offshore jurisdictions like the Cayman Islands or the British Virgin Islands, attracting companies that wish to be protected from public scrutiny of their activities.”

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