After nearly three decades of public service, in which she has become one of the most prominent politicians in Hong Kong, it is hard to imagine Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai was ever shy or insecure. But she says she was not at all confident as a young woman and had trouble getting her message across. 'After I started working, I realised that if I did not take the initiative to communicate with others, I could never grow out of my shell,' says Fan, who discovered the power of the smile in overcoming timidity.
'If you smile at someone, nine out of 10 times a smile will be returned. When people smile at me, I feel more confident to start a conversation, and the other person also feels more comfortable. Then the conversation flows easily,' she says.
Fan started her career as a university administrator after graduating from the University of Hong Kong in 1967. She was appointed to the Legislative Council in 1983 and to the Executive Council six years later. In 1989, she resigned from her role as associate director at the-then Hong Kong Polytechnic and became head of the Education Commission, forgoing a comfortably paid job for voluntary service.
'I left the polytechnic to avoid a conflict of roles with my new appointment, which would allow me to contribute more to tertiary education,' she says. 'I've always been motivated by my desire to give back.'
She was elected as president of the provisional Legislative Council from 1997 to 1998, and then the Legislative Council for three terms. She was the first woman elected to the post and its longest-serving president. Fan is also a veteran deputy of the National People's Congress and was elected to its Standing Committee in 2008.
Her principles in life, she says, are to be honest, responsible and humble, remembering that even the cleverest and wisest of people also make mistakes. 'Being humble enables me to see my own shortcomings and appreciate the strengths of other people, and thereby respect others while improving myself.'
Fan believes working women in Hong Kong face greater challenges than their male counterparts. 'The best way to overcome these challenges is to make more effort to perform and to improve my knowledge and relationship with others.'
With two adult children, Fan has confronted very testing times, including a battle with breast cancer in 2001 and the death of her husband in 2004. Nine years earlier, Fan donated a kidney to save the life of her daughter who suffered from renal failure. In her darkest days, she drew support and strength from the encouragement and care of people around her, particularly her family.
Fan believes family support is crucial for young women in politics. 'If you are single, it is easier because parents are usually more accepting. If you are married, it would be better to discuss your intentions and plans with your better half and get his understanding and support before embarking on your political career. Otherwise, you may face the risk of a broken marriage.' She says women leaders must have good comprehension and communication skills, an ability to inspire confidence, and a willingness to shoulder responsibility and make decisions effectively. They must also possess integrity.
Fan most admires former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai and former vice-premier Wu Yi. 'Both devoted their lives to work for the people of China, and they always put the welfare of their colleagues before their own. They led by example, not authority, [and] will remain in the hearts of many Chinese.'