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City Weekend

Opportunities await if you embrace country’s achievements, NGO executive director tells Hong Kong youth

But Our Hong Kong Foundation executive director dismisses perceptions think-tank is just a mouthpiece for the SAR government and Beijing

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 September, 2016, 2:59pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 September, 2016, 2:29am

Twice named one of the “World’s 100 Most Powerful Women” by Forbes Magazine, former Amway Corporation executive Eva Cheng Li Kam-fun has chosen to take on a different and significantly more difficult challenge since retiring in 2011 – solving Hong Kong’s problems.

“Mission impossible”, some would say, but Cheng believes that in her new role as executive director of NGO think-tank Our Hong Kong Foundation, it can be accomplished through engagement with the community and presenting sound policy recommendations to the government.

Lack of social mobility and dwindling job prospects are issues affecting many young Hong Kong people, who believe the city’s best days are behind it as most industries are now at a mature stage. However, Cheng is confident its future lies in technology, and Hongkongers should look towards the mainland for opportunities and tap its massive market.

Our Hong Kong Foundation has organised InnoTech Expo 2016, its first innovation and technology event, showcasing science and technology achievements from the mainland. Notable Chinese scientists and technology experts will also be presenting keynote speeches hoping to inspire a new generation of science and technology enthusiasts.

The event runs from September 24 to October 1 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.

Q: Why did you decide to get involved with Our Hong Kong Foundation? A: I have worked for 34 years for an American company, and I retired in 2011. As with all things in life, we make twists and turns, and on one occasion [former Hong Kong chief executive] Mr Tung Chee-hwa talked to me about setting up a think-tank or a foundation. I said [to him]: ‘I’ve never worked for a foundation or a think-tank before. I’m not sure exactly what it is.’ Mr Tung [in his typical way] said: ‘Well, don’t worry, we’ll do it together and we’ll explore this,’ and I thought, it’s a good opportunity. I think on the one hand I’m probably too young to retire, [and on the other] age-wise I’m no longer a young girl – I consider this an adventure.

Q: Was there anything specific that Mr Tung said about the foundation that captured your attention?

A: Hong Kong is very polarised and it has been so for a number of years. Mr Tung has a vision that Hong Kong has got to be a better place and there has got to be people working at it. As a leader, he shared with me his ideas and he thought that if there is a think-tank that can present to Hong Kong people more facts, more rationales for decision-making ... if [it can help them] think in a more rational and coherent manner ... then Hong Kong would probably be a better place to live and work in. So his ideas really appealed to me: his vision to make Hong Kong better, his plans that we can assemble talent, not only from Hong Kong but also from the mainland and around the world, who are into public policy, and if we do proper research work, advocate what we believe in and what we believe is good, and tread along that line, there are lots of opportunities. So I thought it sounds like a mission I can certainly participate in.

Q: You have said that Our Hong Kong Foundation wants to present “the facts”, does that mean the public was not getting a clear picture before?

A: I think people tend to be pretty selective. If you hold one view, you would want to listen to more people justifying the view that you have ... But coming back to the bigger picture, I think the facts are all there, it’s just whether it’s been properly communicated, whether it’s communicated again and again in a consistent fashion in a way that people will be convinced by it – you just need to do it in a very patient and persistent manner. There is a lot of art in communication ... so we just need to have a way to carry across our messages.

Q: How has your role at Our Hong Kong Foundation been different from your previous roles?

A: [It is] very different. In my previous life, I ran Amway’s operations in the Greater China region and Southeast Asia. It was a profit-making organisation, with very clear goals and a clear focus. What I needed to do was to set the goals, which were usually measurable in terms of revenues and earnings. I needed to [go] the extra mile to make sure that my customers are happy. I needed to make sure that my shareholders and other stakeholders considered me fair ... With an NGO, with a foundation, we have to be efficient as well. We have a mission, which is very meaningful. In terms of who my targets are, I think they are more difficult to define. Particularly with the Our Hong Kong Foundation, almost everyone in the community is someone we want to embrace. Some will probably be more [open], and others will be more sceptical or cynical. It’s a very long process, it’s not something that can be measured at the end of each year ... We have to balance different sectors of the community, it’s not just one way. For me, when we run the foundation we really want to achieve our [goals] with the community’s acknowledgement, respect and trust. Those are more intangible things.

Q: The list of people who are in your foundation gives the perception that you are going to promote whatever the SAR government or the central government wants to promote. Is that accurate or a misconception?

A: This is a terrible misconception. It’s far from the truth. I’ve been with the foundation for less than two years as executive director. Frankly, I have never heard Mr Tung tell me at any point in time: ‘Hey Eva we must do this because Beijing wants it or because the Hong Kong government wants it.’ The message I always got was, ‘Let’s discuss and get the facts and decide based on our experience what is really good for Hong Kong.’ Mr Tung has never asked me to guess what he wants or tells me what he wants ... Would I try to guess what Beijing likes? I won’t do that. I think what we really want to do is get the facts. Listen to the professionals who are experts in the area. And at the same time, listen to the man on the street and community at large ... We make reasoned choices and move along. We only lean towards what we believe is the right thing to do for Hong Kong.

Q: How do you decide what topic to focus on next? A: We have a 50-member research council. We meet two or three times a year, and we talk about the broad directions, the type of papers that we want to focus on. It’s not like we do our research, we decide on topic one, topic two, topic three, and keep jumping from topic to topic. Land and housing, we did a research report on it [which] we released last November, and this October, we will have phase two, we’re going to dive in a bit deeper. Each report calls for more consultation and discussion. People thought, ‘Oh, Our Hong Kong Foundation is founded by Mr Tung, so whatever you come up with the government will take it and be implemented to become policy in a very short time.’ That’s a very simplistic way of looking at it. Nobody can do that. You need to have a good enough consensus in the community as well.

Q: What is holding back Hong Kong’s ability to become an innovator?

A: I think there is a process. On the one hand, Hong Kong has always thrived, based on a lot of strengths and core competencies, but times have changed ... If you trace the history of Hong Kong, you can almost see that at different phases, Hong Kong played up a certain core strength. But I think the time has come now for us to do some soul-searching and ask ourselves, with all the changes happening around us, [what] is our future? If you look at the great tide of science and innovation breakthroughs happening, we have no option but to focus on this area. We have the ability to trend in those areas but it takes a paradigm shift, in how those in the government, leaders in the community and the population ride the shift ... I don’t think people don’t want to do it, it just takes time. You can see all these institutions and science bases coming to life. We advocate that the government should be even more proactive and spend more on research and development. It takes the public sector and private sector to see the opportunities.

Q: What role can Hong Kong play in developing innovation and technology, not just in the city, but also on the mainland?

A: Since about 2005, China has incorporated Hong Kong in its own grand plans for science and technology. There are 16 key state laboratories in Hong Kong, and there are another five national engineering research centres as well, all approved and set up under the supervision of the Ministry of Science and Technology of the People’s Republic of China. There are hundreds of young people and scientists who are attached to these projects that are a part of what China is doing as a nation. When we talk about these big, scientific achievements that are happening on the mainland, don’t forget there are many bits and pieces ... from which you can see the footprints of Hong Kong people as well. For most parents, they want their kids to study to become a medical doctor, engineer, lawyer, investment banker, but I’m not sure that it will be the same in a another three to five years’ time. But in the meantime, there are a lot of opportunities for our young science students as well.

Q: The focus of the InnoTech Expo is to inspire young people and hopefully to get them to take up a career in technology and innovation. How do you convince Hongkongers, especially the young, that this event and the achievements on display will benefit them and not just mainland China?

A: I really believe that it’s all about what you choose to believe and open up ... When you see this diver in China’s swimming team, he dived beautifully and he got a gold medal, but why do you get excited? I don’t swim, not to mention dive. Why am I excited about it? I hope that if you are Chinese, you have to admit and recognise that at the end of the day this is China, this is your country and this is a national achievement. But more than that, we hope young people will see that with all these achievements that are going on ... it’s driving the economic and industrial development of China as a whole. We’re talking about a country making progress and staying ahead of other nations ... in the science and technology race. The future for your country is very promising. And Hong Kong being situated where it is, being a part of China, means there are lots of opportunities they can [make use of]. I talk to a lot of young people in Hong Kong, and their eyes sparkle when they know that all these thing are going on and the market in China is something they can look at as well. I hope our expo is really there to just tell them, ‘Hey look, this is what is happening in China, your country. And if you’re willing to embrace it, there can be a lot of opportunities for you as well.’