After a decade of accusing some of Hong Kong's largest businesses of being monopolists, the Consumer Council has a new message: we can help you. It may seem a strange message, but new chairman Professor Andrew Chan Chi-fai is clear that the Consumer Council can help those normally considered its enemies become more competitive and even more profitable. 'I know a lot of business people, but not in a formal manner. I understand their opinions, their concerns, their headaches.' The 47-year-old professor of marketing at the Chinese University has a very different vocabulary from his predecessor, lawyer Anna Wu Hung-yuk. His view is that of a free-market economist who believes businesses get leaner and fitter in a competitive, demanding marketplace - and by making the marketplace more competitive and demanding the Consumer Council is helping them. 'A monopoly will make a person or a firm get weak. Once the political environment changes, or maybe the economic situation changes, it is subject to challenge. And because it is not strong enough the company will become weaker and weaker. 'Of course, after some challenges, if the company is a decent one with good people it can improve the situation. But a monopoly is still not a good thing for a company.' Professor Chan points at the Consumer Council logo on the wall of his office in the council's headquarters in North Point, which shows a pair of traditional weighing scales, and imagines that the interests of consumers and businesses are on either side. 'If the balance is getting towards one party or the other it's not good for society.' This might come as a surprise to those who thought the logo represented justice, and the sole job of the Consumer Council was to try to get some for the small people in a society where large firms controlled petrol, piped gas supply, banking, transport, supermarkets, property development . . . the list goes on. As for the Government, which during the past decade repeatedly rebuffed the Consumer Council's attempts to dismantle monopolies - or their near-rival, oligopolies - his argument to them will again be based on economics, about making Hong Kong a more efficient, competitive place to do business. He uses tourism as an easy example of a business in which the Consumer Council can improve competitiveness. 'If Hong Kong is expensive, and people do not come, the whole of Hong Kong will be hurt.' Although known for product tests, the Consumer Council has always tried to play a wider role in the economy. One reason it was set up in 1974 was widespread allegations that cartels in basic commodities such as rice were causing inflation - and the Government hoped the council could help the economy by reducing this. In the early 1990s then-chairman Professor Edward Chen Kwan-yiu, an economist, used many of the same arguments as Professor Chan, only to see the Government's resolve melt under pressure from banks and big businesses. Professor Chan's immediate predecessor, Ms Wu, was a lawyer with more than 10 years' experience campaigning for a rights-based, civil society. Ms Wu's move to the Equal Opportunities Commission meant that she could not continue and it fell to the Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, to choose her successor. Professor Chan was a surprise choice, with no previous high-profile community job. In contrast to Ms Wu he was a low-profile figure and had been on the Consumer Council less than three years. The job helped accelerate the public careers of both Liberal legislator Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee and her successor, Democratic Party chairman Martin Lee Chu-ming. But Professor Chan appears to have no political ambitions - an attitude that many commentators believe would have been a reassurance to the civil servants in the Trade and Industry Branch who drew up the recommendation for the Chief Executive. The Government's interest in the consumer agenda appears limited. Dr Dhirendra Srivastava, an associate professor in City University's school of law, says Hong Kong has fallen behind Australia, Europe and the United States in legal protection such as making manufacturers liable for defects in their products even if the consumer cannot prove negligence. 'There is a need to strengthen the law,' Dr Srivastava says. Although this particular fault is being remedied, the Consumer Council's biggest prize - a law to protect the consumer against price-fixing monopolies - seems as distant as ever. This is despite blatant price-fixing such as that shown by the six mobile phone companies when they decided to lift their prices by $20 on the same day earlier this month - and their near-simultaneous decision this week to revert to their original prices. In such an environment, Professor Chan's educational approach may be the only one that brings results. As he says, the Consumer Council is largely made up of professional people, although he does say at least one member is a 'housewife'. Its $66 million annual funding is provided by the Government. The Chief Executive also picks the rest of the council and approves and fixes the pay of its most senior permanent staff member, Chief Executive Pamela Chan Wong-shui. Despite this, the body - established in 1974 - is seen as independent of the Government and, Professor Chan believes, has helped foster a culture in which consumers are more likely to make noise if they are unhappy. However, because of its background Professor Chan finds it difficult to see a day in which the council would use tactics commonly used by the new breed of non-governmental pressure groups, such as consumer boycotts or demonstrations. Street tactics are now used even by groups such as lawyers, who last July organised a 600-strong march about the rule of law. Instead, he says, the council is better at using reason, slowly working to try to change attitudes in Government and business, step by step. When civil servants, who he points out are also consumers, are making decisions they must weigh a lot of factors. If they can get some extra weight placed on factors important to consumers then this is a form of victory, he says. 'As long as something has been achieved then we have accomplished something. We can use that as an anchor.' One problem faced by the council, he admits, is that the nature of consumption is changing fast. Product safety has always been its prime concern, and many of its activities still revolve around testing for basic electrical and mechanical safety. But consumers spend an increasing amount of money on intangible products and services which are difficult to measure and test. Last year's biggest source of complaints, for instance, was IDD services. The number soared 80 per cent to 1,820 from 1998. Buying 20 rice-cookers for a safety test can be done in a day. Signing up for 20 insurance policies and making a valid claim on each to test them is much more difficult, says Professor Chan. Yet he is convinced that 'the Consumer Council must move with the market' and is pleased, for instance, that it has done work on the risks of buying over the Internet. The other problem is that Professor Chan's attempts to educate Government and businesses may fail. Among Hong Kong's corporate giants only Hongkong Bank and Hutchison Whampoa have tried to build international brands. The others seem more interested in making maximum profits at home. Linus Cheung Wing-lam, chief executive of Cable & Wireless HKT, formerly Hong Kong's most profitable monopoly, lamented at a cocktail party last May that 'I love monopolies, I do'. He told the crowd: 'A few years ago I was charging $10 a minute to the United States, making $9 profit, and you paid for it. Now you pay $1 and you say I'm too expensive.' Mr Cheung's company is now leaner and fitter - it has shed 3,000 staff since its monopoly days - but he certainly did not appear appreciative of the lessons he was learning, which have cut his profits flat for five years, and it seems unlikely other monopolies in Hong Kong would like to get such an education. And it was not consumer pressure that finished off the telecoms monopoly. Instead, it was abandoned due to pressure worldwide for liberalisation and after the Government produced figures showing that economic benefits from lower-priced calls could amount to $17 billion. Professor Chan says at the end of the day the monopolists themselves can be their biggest enemy by going too far and triggering public anger. Industries that believe they can improve their long-term future can call on the council to help them set up industry groups and codes of conduct, he says. Retailers of traditional Chinese medicine, he says, are an example. As for the Government, Professor Chan says its protection of local monopolists is like a weak parent being over-protective about its children. 'You can't spoil them. You have to give them challenges to teach them to grow.'