Hong Kong reporters slam bid to curb information access to company directors

HONG KONG (AFP) - 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 mainland Chinese officials.

Under the proposals put forward by the Financial Services and Treasury Bureau, corporate directors could apply to have their residential address and identity card or passport numbers blocked from public view.

Such information can currently 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 the city's leader 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."

Hong Kong enjoys semi-autonomy from China with 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 a number of reports focusing on the wealth and assets of China's ruling elite grabbed worldwide headlines.

In September last year, financial newswire 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 (S$464 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 New York Times in China have since been blocked.

A large number of Chinese companies are listed in Hong Kong, the Asian financial hub which acts as a gateway for international firms seeking to tap the booming Chinese market.

A copy of the proposed amendments to the companies ordinance posted on the legislature website showed the aim is to have the new law become effective in the first quarter of 2014.