Profile: young tycoon Lau Ming-wai tasked with reaching out to Hong Kong's disgruntled youth

Lau Ming-wai cut his political teeth serving Leung Chun-ying's main rival - but Leung is entrusting the young tycoon with a key role

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 April, 2015, 11:46pm
UPDATED : Monday, 27 April, 2015, 7:26am

The 2012 chief executive election changed the lives not just of the three candidates, but also of people around them.

While Leung Chun-ying celebrated victory, businessman Dr Lau Ming-wai licked his wounds after a bruising first step into frontline politics. Lau, then vice-chairman of Chinese Estates Holdings, served as deputy secretary general for Henry Tang Ying-yen, whose campaign was derailed by revelations of an illegal basement below Tang's Kowloon Tong home.

But Lau's first experience of politics was not to be his last. He has taken on a growing number of increasingly important public duties. He also took over from his father Joseph Lau Luen-hung as head of Chinese Estates after the latter was convicted of bribery in Macau.

Despite a background working for his rival, Leung has entrusted Lau with several prominent roles. He recently joined the government's commissions on poverty and strategic development. Last month, he was handpicked to chair the Commission on Youth, replacing Bunny Chan Chung-bun, 56.

The role is increasingly important at a time when the city's young people are unhappy over lack of economic opportunity and political development.

But many questioned the rationale behind the appointment. Lau, 34, hadn't even served on the commission yet was chosen ahead of young commission members such as district councillor Lau Kwok-fan, 33, and fellow tycoon Kenneth Fok Kai-kong, 35, members for five and three years, respectively.

Critics also questioned whether a billionaire's son could possibly understand the troubles of young people struggling to afford even a basic flat, never mind the luxury homes Chinese Estates is known for.

However, Lau argued last week that he had the skills to identify with the city's youth.

"It's about people skills and empathy … I also have [experience] in policy research," he said, referring to his role as vice-chairman of the Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre, a think tank which has studied youth policy.

And Lau sought to demonstrate those skills, arguing that his predecessor was wrong to say in January that young people who applied for public housing were giving up on themselves. Lau said he could imagine seeking a public flat if he fell on hard times.

A pan-democratic member of the poverty commission, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described Lau as someone who is "willing to do things" for society.

"My impression of him is quite OK, because he is not like some other tycoons' children who just [treat public posts as] nominal and make blank comments in meetings," the person said. "He is willing to visit subdivided flats … and engage lawmakers on the Bauhinia Foundation's policy suggestions."

Lau said that, in an effort to show his concern for young people, he had visited six or seven secondary schools in the last three weeks. He also hoped to have "positive interaction" with student leaders such as Scholarism's Joshua Wong Chi-fung, as well as visiting sports grounds to talk to students who hang out there.

"I know secondary school pupils are mainly concerned about their studies … but I haven't asked them [why they don't trust the government], and I am interested to find out," he said.

While he opposed last year's Occupy protests, Lau said he would talk to young protesters should a similar civil disobedience campaign happen again.

Lau also taps the internet and says he enjoys reading discussion forums popular with local youngsters, as well as the youth oriented 100Most magazine. But he is coy on the idea of opening his Facebook account to the public, as Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah did.

"I have to consider … whether I have so many things from my personal life and food pictures to share," he said. "I prefer face-to-face interaction … because I don't know how representative the internet messages are of our young people's voice."

Lau was more forthcoming when asked about some recent controversies. For example, he said he saw benefits in the idea of study trips to the mainland, as suggested by the University of Hong Kong - even if such trips were "mandatory".

"The problem is not whether it is compulsory, but whether [the destination] is the mainland … That was what triggered the political elements," Lau said. HKU has since denied any plan for compulsory visits after an outcry.

And Lau also played down controversy over his HK$400 million donation to Sweden's Karolinska Institute. The gift will allow the famous medical university to set up its first overseas research centre in Hong Kong.

But the fact the donation was agreed after a dinner between Lau, Leung and the institute's vice chancellor, Professor Anders Hamsten, led to speculation the young tycoon was out to impress the chief executive. The fact the latter's son, Chuen-yan, joined the institute this year sparked conflict-of-interest claims.

"It was unfortunate for the donation to be politicised … because the donation itself is a good thing, no matter how you see it," Lau said.

The view of Lau as a rising political star was strengthened in February, when a Chinese-language newspaper reported that Leung had told a senior mainland official that Lau had agreed to be undersecretary of a proposed innovation and technology bureau.

Lau would not be drawn on whether such an agreement existed - and plans for the bureau have stalled in the legislature. But, he added: "I like both my business and political jobs … and I cannot see myself devoting myself full-time to government and politics."

Despite that, Lau does not completely rule out the idea he could one day take part in another election for chief executive - this time as a candidate.

"I don't have such a plan, but I would never say never … I don't want to speculate."


Lau Ming-wai

Age: 34

Education: PhD in law, King's College, London; master's, London School of Economics

Career: Chairman and CEO, Chinese Estates; previously worked for Goldman Sachs and Longview Partners, London

Public duties: Chairman, Commission on Youth; vice-chairman, Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre, Ocean Park Corporation; member, Commission on Poverty, Commission on Strategic Development, council of City University

Family: Married