Hong Kong’s biggest contribution to world news today is the continuation of billionaire Cecil Chao’s US$65 million quest for a man to straighten out his gay daughter. Aside from displaying to the planet the subtlety, sophistication and intellect of our visionary and respected business leaders, the story underlines the enlightened nature of our government, which is so sensitive to minorities’ feelings that it refuses a public debate on equal rights for gays because a few people in the city “worry that launching a consultation exercise may cause undesirable impact on family, religion and education.”
With consultations threatening undesirable impacts on the family and religion (and I always thought the exercises were a charade), officials aren’t going to change their minds in a hurry about that issue. But that might not be the case with the number-two story from the Big Lychee at the moment: the plan to implement the new Companies Ordinance, which reduces public access to corporate directors’ identity details.
This story has already been picked up in the Western media because journalists’ right to confirm directors’ identities through publicly available Hong Kong company records enabled Bloomberg and New York Times reporters to dig up the dirt about senior Chinese officials’ families extensive fortunes. Now it is getting another run following the appearance of a 1,768-signature petition in local newspapers.
Most reports overseas on this issue refer to the stories about the Chinese elite’s vast hidden wealth. They also tend to mention local concerns about Beijing’s increasing influence over local affairs. Their readers might conclude that the Hong Kong authorities are trying to change the law in order to protect the privacy of Mainland princelings who are laundering their billions here. In fact, it seems to be more the other way round. Few noticed the changed privacy rules when the new Companies Ordinance was passed last year; it’s only now, with amendments going through the Legislative Council, it has become a big story.
Although HK ID card numbers serve no password-type purposes, most people see them as personal and secret; the Privacy Commission, always on the alert for reasons to justify its existence, has encouraged paranoia about this. As if Hongkongers weren’t already touchy about privacy. Proposals long ago for a high-tech road pricing system failed at least partly because of fears that drivers’ whereabouts could be monitored by some sort of unnamed Gestapo (ie, their spouses). Many people regard banks’ pooling of individuals’ credit information as a vicious assault on inalienable human rights. Government officials who are directors of companies are themselves breaking the law right now by not putting their personal postal addresses on record.
The government would not usually lose sleep over local journalists’ objections to a new law. If overseas media join in with ‘Asia’s World City to cover up for corrupt businessmen’, they might start to worry a bit. Most of all, however, far more respectable if discreet parties also have a strong interest in maintaining current standards of disclosure. Financial services providers rely on access to directors’ details to authenticate identities. Is the Huang who was nailed for fraud a few years back the Wong who walked in the door today? It helps prevent things like… money laundering.
Look at it as another problem left by the Donald Tsang administration. I would rate the chances of a U-turn as higher than, say, the chances of a phone call from Cecil Chao.