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Jack Ma

Jack Ma would ‘rather die on the beach than in my office’. Now there’s a lesson for Hongkongers

Alice Wu says Jack Ma’s retirement plans, announced on his 54th birthday, should inspire us to rethink our priorities by aiming for a healthy work-life balance and not pushing our children into the rat race

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 September, 2018, 12:15pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 September, 2018, 5:00pm

Jack Ma, Alibaba’s executive chairman, took the world by surprise when he announced – on his 54th birthday last Monday – his plans to retire in a year. Ma has been pretty vocal about what he feels to be important – and about the toll work has taken on his life. In 2016, at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, he said: “I don’t have my life … If I still can have a next life, I will never do a business like this. I will be my own self; I want to enjoy my life.”

The Chinese work ethic is supposedly all about hard work and no sleep. Look no further than Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who wears her flattering qipaos and her sleep-deprived, workaholic ways like badges of honour.

But we often overlook how much of life is taken away from us when we are defined only by our work or the illusion of our achievements. Arianna Huffington has been trying to turn the world around after she collapsed from exhaustion at her desk in 2007, broke a cheekbone and came to in a pool of her own blood; she has become an evangelist for sleep.

Ma’s words should act as a wake-up call, too. He once told US talk-show host Charlie Rose: “The thing is, I don’t want to die in my office. I want to die on the beach.” Not that we should all just quit and head for the beach, although I’m sure a lot of us would really benefit from some vitamin D.

But a life on the beach, literally or not, is the life we’ve been missing out on. And for Ma, it’s a life that will allow him to focus on education and philanthropy. Ma’s retirement plans should inspire us to rethink our priorities.

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Interestingly, in a recent survey, expats said Hong Kong was one of the worst places to live and work. The survey placed Hong Kong a disgraceful 56th out of 68 economies worldwide, way behind Bahrain, which was the favourite; Taiwan, which placed second; and, Singapore, fifth. Most of us know the Chinese proverb that onlookers see us more clearly than we do.

The survey revealed that our attractiveness as an expat destination has gone into free fall: we dropped 17 places, from 39th last year, and were ranked an unfortunate 65th in work-life balance, which was described as a “primary concern among expats”.

As the report bluntly pointed out, “At 46.8 hours, the average length of a full-time work week in Hong Kong is noticeably above the global 44-hour average.” The cost of living doesn’t help, either. But, all the while, serious discussions on setting a maximum working time in Hong Kong have never taken off. At least one of our lawmakers feel it is completely fine to reminisce about the good old days when there was no parental leave.

For all the talk in this city about getting our children to “win at the starting line”, we fail to see how our scarcity of childcare and difficulties securing a quality education put us at a serious disadvantage. The pressure we put on ourselves and our children is enormous. These are also reasons why foreign talent doesn’t think it’s worth coming here.

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But if you’re still unconvinced – because, after all, what do outsiders know – just look at the recent Social Welfare Department report on child abuse. It paints a bleak picture. Child abuse cases in Hong Kong rose 6.2 per cent, to 947, last year. Forty per cent of those cases involved physical injuries, and 59 per cent of the abusers were parents.

The scariest fact is that cases involving children aged two or under rose from 92 in 2015 to 222. These are social problems brought on by living the kind of life Hongkongers have come to accept.

We need to rethink our priorities. We need to examine what living life means. And, hopefully, we will finally see that buying inhumanely small flats at all costs doesn’t give meaning to life, just as the quest to win and get top marks in school doesn’t make life worth living.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA