US firms seek internet access pledge

China should reassure US companies that it will prevent any erosion of Hong Kong’s internet access and free flow of information after the Biden administration issued a warning about operating in the financial hub.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong president Tara Joseph said on Bloomberg TV yesterday that US businesses recognize the city is still a good place to be based but hope the central and SAR governments can guarantee laws providing unrestricted internet access and the free flow of information.

“One of the key attributes of Hong Kong is that you can go onto Google, you can go onto Facebook and any other platform you want versus what you can do in the mainland,” Joseph said.

“So I do think it’s important for the government to recognize that and to be open and say we’re going to maintain that free flow of information.”

Her comments come after the US State Department on Friday issued a wide-ranging advisory to businesses in Hong Kong, warning them of “growing risks” from the national security law imposed by Beijing last year.

The advisory highlights concerns about data privacy, transparency and access to critical business information, as well as the risk from dealing with the numerous officials and entities in the city that have been sanctioned by Washington.

Joseph said it did not contain much that was surprising to firms operating in Hong Kong, but it still served as a wake-up call.

“It’s unusual for the US government to put out a business advisory, so something like that has shaken awake anyone who wasn’t aware of the changes or the new normal that we’re experiencing in Hong Kong,” she said. “For our members and most of the companies that are on the ground here, we’ve been living with this for a while so we’re quite aware of what’s happening on the ground and positioning ourselves to deal with it. But there are increased risks.”

The advisory follows the widespread and sometimes violent unrest in 2019, with Beijing responding with the imposition of the security law and changes to the electoral system that allow authorities to vet any candidate seeking office.

While the security law has not yet impacted the legal environment in a way that would affect the commercial operations of US firms, Joseph said the broad impact of the legislation has raised concerns.

“Rule of law is all important for companies here,” she said.

“And so you have to separate whether the national security law is tapping away at any other aspect of law that would affect companies, such as commercial law. There’s nothing obvious there right now.

“But it starts to set people questioning those things.”

Meanwhile, US consul general in Hong Kong and Macau, Hanscom Smith, will hold an internal webinar briefing with AmCham members today, in which he will provide more details regarding US businesses operating in the SAR.

AmCham told its members that it would be a valuable opportunity for them to interact with the consulate team and share their concerns from industry perspectives.

Secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury Christopher Hui Ching-yu yesterday said on his blog that the US government’s “so-called advisory to US businesses and individuals operating in Hong Kong is ignoring the facts and creates trouble out of nothing.”

Hui said the US accusations are “hollow, ridiculous and powerless” and will not do any harm to Hong Kong’s international financial center status.

Separately, Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce chief executive George Leung Siu-kay said he has not seen high risks for businesses operating in Hong Kong so far. And no chamber member expressed worries or said they would reduce their investment and operations in the SAR.

Speaking in a radio interview, Leung said the business sector is mature in understanding operational risks and businesses will pay attention to warnings issued by certain governments, while each company will evaluate its own operational risks.

Facts and the actual environment are the most important factors to see whether there could be big operational risks, he said.

Asked if the US government’s warning would hit the international image of Hong Kong, Leung said the SAR government should promote itself to overseas markets.

Some independent multinational organizations’ assessment had provided objective views on Hong Kong, which he said the government could cite when explaining the actual business environment in the city.

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