Hong Kong's skyline is seen in this file photograph from 2020.
Hong Kong CNN Business  — 

Beachfront property owned by China’s political elite. Washington-accused drug lords and gun runners operating blocks apart. Companies enabling North Korea’s purported sanctions-busting fleet.

All the above exist in Hong Kong and were exposed, in part, by investigations using Hong Kong’s Companies Registry, a public database that has become the subject of a fierce debate between the city’s government and a coalition of investors, lawyers, journalists and advocates for transparent governance.

Though the registry’s online search engine looks and operates like it was created 20 years ago, it is a crucial tool for a smattering of industries because it contains identifying information for the nearly 1.4 million active companies in Hong Kong — and the people in charge of them.

Investors use the registry to research the business connections of potential partners. Lawyers use it to find the addresses of businesses they want to sue. Labor unions use the registry to issue complaints against management. And journalists use it to investigate possible wrongdoing.

The Hong Kong government, however, alleges that the registry’s data has been “weaponized” by people looking to bully their political opponents. It says people are procuring the home addresses or identification numbers, available on the database for a small fee, of others and then sharing them widely online. That tactic is known as doxxing and spiked during the city’s political unrest in 2019.

To prevent people from misusing the registry, the Financial Services and Treasury Bureau wants to remove the need for directors to provide a home address, and partially mask their identity cards or passport numbers.

The government said this proposal strikes a “reasonable balance” between privacy and the public’s right to information.

“Overseas countries also have similar measures to prevent doxxing or weaponizing personal information, the government is only addressing the same problem they are also facing,” said the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, said at a news conference last month.

Hong KongChief Executive Carrie Lam speaks at a news conference on April 13.