Woman on a mission: Hong Kong corporate hotshot Eva Cheng gets down to business of public policy
After 34 years with American firm Amway, Eva Cheng turned her attention elsewhere and is now executive director of one of the city’s top think tanks
These days it seems everyone is talking about politics, and Eva Cheng Li Kam-fun takes it a step further by trying to influence the government in policymaking. It’s not an easy task, but the former top business executive is determined to do everything in her power to serve the people of Hong Kong.
Cheng has been doing so since January 2015, when she was appointed executive director of the Our Hong Kong Foundation, a think tank founded by former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa. It pools together local, mainland Chinese and international talent to study the city’s development needs and makes multidisciplinary policy recommendations.
With a mission to promote Hong Kong’s long-term interests through public policy research, Cheng aims to foster social cohesion, economic prosperity and sustainable development.
Not only does she have the ear of those in power, Cheng also conquered the business world with a 34-year career at Amway Corporation, an American company that manufactures and sells nutrition and beauty products.
“I started in a very junior position as the executive assistant to the general manager and a year later I was promoted,” Cheng says. “So from very humble beginnings, I got into sales and marketing and what followed in the next 34 years was quite fascinating.”
From a lowly position she soon became the Hong Kong general manager, then rose to oversee the Asia region.
“Then came the late 1990s, and the company embarked on this adventure into the China market. Subsequently we decided to build a manufacturing plant there.”
Two years after Amway China opened, the Chinese government issued a ban on direct selling. Nevertheless, Cheng was able to navigate the challenge.
“At the time, the administration thought the marketing method was too new and controversial, so I tackled that part and was fortunate enough to have helped the company face the challenges.”
The firm grew to become highly successful in China while her leadership skills gained her a spot on Forbes magazine’s list of the “world’s 100 most powerful women” in 2008 and 2009. The following year Fortune magazine named Cheng among the “25 most influential business women in China”.
What was it like being named one of the most powerful women in the world?
I learned about it through my cousin who called at midnight to congratulate me. I was shocked. I was very honoured, of course, there was a degree of happiness about it, to be recognised. But honestly, I didn’t feel much different afterwards. You get up the next morning and basically nothing changes, life goes on the same. I don’t think I have done enough to deserve to be on the list. I certainly have done a lot, but I would imagine that there are many people who are successful in their own ways and are very qualified as well. I certainly feel I can do more and I should do more.
You were on the Forbes list for two consecutive years. Can you describe your journey to success?
I would use the words colourful and exciting. And like any journey, there are twists and turns, ups and downs. There are moments where you feel that you are on top of the world and others where you think: “Oh, am I going to pull through with this challenge?” After graduating from university, I never planned this journey to success. As a perfectionist, my motto all along has been to be good at what you do and do everything to the best of your ability.
You’ve been very active in doing social good, what inspired you to be the person you are today?
Curiosity was what got me started. I have worked all my life in a commercial setting, but I can see that public and government policy can really affect lives in a way that no other institutions can. I’d always been in the commercial world and was interested to know what it was like in public administration, people formulating legislation and policies. I know that is how I can really affect people and the matters that are so dear to their everyday lives as well as the long-term future of the city or a country. And Mr Tung is somebody who inspires and I am touched by his passion for his country and for humanity at large. He is extremely active and very intelligent. I thought if I had an opportunity to work for him, I would learn a lot.
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What is the major difference between running a business and a think tank?
With a company, there are goals and missions and those are very clear. Think tanks have a vision and you know what you want, too. However, I think in a corporate environment, our goals are largely measurable with clear-cut strategies and targets and your stakeholders are very defined and particularly your products, your services are clearly demarcated. Overall, it’s more tangible but here at a think tank, when you do public policy research and advocacy, you have your goals and you know what areas you want to dive into, your outputs, and really get our message across to the policymakers, stakeholders and the public at large. Sometimes it’s not like you make recommendations and people will take them. People won’t. We have to be a lot more patient and advocacy may take years.
As one of the think tank’s leaders, what has been the most difficult moment or task?
Think tanks are still relatively new to Hongkongers. We are one of 36 here. People are not used to the idea, so we still have a role to build their reputation. Initially, when we were setting up, the greatest obstacle was that people would always speculate because Mr Tung was setting it up – what were our motives, who was really behind it, and whether we were trying to brainwash. And so it took us time to prove that what we’re interested in is very simple: just issues that Hongkongers care about.
So the first hurdle was to let people understand what our mission is and that we are Hongkongers, doing things for Hong Kong. And we have to build trust. The other problem is a continuous one, which is recruiting good-quality researchers. We are very blessed in the sense that we already have 30 researchers at different levels and they all come with very good backgrounds with a large number of topics we want to tackle.
As a Hongkonger, how do you think the city’s young people could better themselves?
I don’t think young people in Hong Kong lack motivation. They’re very smart and have an energy level that is valuable. However, I think what is needed is to look at the entire education system, what values we’ve imparted to our younger generation as they move through the years and what kind of role models we’re setting up for them. The output very much depends on the input and if we want Hong Kong to thrive, have we educated them enough about “one country, two systems”? In terms of creativity, the young people possess very strong Hong Kong attributes. The missing part though, is that they can be focused on just Hong Kong and themselves. And in this context, they have not really availed themselves of the opportunities.
How could finance chief Paul Chan have better delivered his budget?
It’s hard to please everybody, but I think the administration made an intense effort to address the needs of different sectors and age groups. I like that they are thinking a little bit more long term than before, and the way they’re investing more in technology and innovation is very important. You always need to address the immediate, but it’s equally important to think long term. There are a lot of indications in this budget that give me confidence that the new administration is trying to take a more long-term view of the city and I like that.
How would the foundation deal with Hong Kong’s housing problem?
In a nutshell, we believe that the gap between those with assets and those without is really getting too big and if it continues, will become a very destabilising force in our society. We advocate home ownership and feel that the government should do everything it can to make sure people can own a home. This can be done through subsidised public housing or making flats affordable to those who want to buy and that may require more subsidiary schemes. The unfortunate thing is that the government is trying to boost supply but it’s never fast enough. The larger issue goes back to the need for land. Our Hong Kong Foundation believes that there’s a need for reclamation.
Last time Hong Kong had a new town was in the 1990s and that was Tung Chung. That is why right now what we need is a large flat piece of land that can address our needs.
What is the one thing that you regret or something that you wish you could have done better?
I don’t live with regrets, but I wish I had spent more time with my mother in her final days, 25 years ago. But I did not realise back then that life could be so fragile. Looking back I also wish I’d spent more time playing with my kids when they were younger. I guess I kind of took that for granted. And once they’re all grown up, you really don’t get those days back and it was so much fun. In life, you often don’t value what you have until you lose it and you only realise the importance of it when you look back. I wish I’d said more thank yous and words of appreciation to all my colleagues and my staff because they are all wonderful people.
What is your favourite book?
The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. It’s very thin and easy to read. It talks about children and family truth, freedom and love.
What do you do in your free time?
I sing Cantonese opera. It helps me to reduce work pressure. I have my own small private concert hall and I host a mini concert to perform three or four times a year for the elderly from the community.
What is your go-to cuisine?
My husband and I like to go for Japanese food or something French but, of course, most of the time we end up at a Chinese restaurant for dinner because it’s his favourite.
Where is your favourite holiday destination?
The best way to spend my holiday is to indulge in some “me time”, just by myself to enjoy some Cantonese opera. But now that I have grandchildren, my favourite places are those with lots of children’s facilities, like Disneyland or Universal Studios.