The Bulletin: Congratulations on becoming the Chamber’s CEO. Why did you decide to take on this role?
George Leung: Thank you. It’s my great honour to take on this role. I have been deeply involved with the Chamber for more than two decades and I truly appreciate the Chamber’s contribution to the success of Hong Kong. Right now, at this difficult period for Hong Kong, particularly the disruption caused by the social movement and the coronavirus outbreak, I believe the Chamber has a stronger role to play in helping businesses and in advising the Government on supporting the economy and safeguarding jobs.
The decision came when I had just stepped down from the banking sector after completing a full chapter of my career. At the same time as I was preparing to retire from HSBC, where most recently I served as Advisor to the Chief Executive, Shirley Yuen was stepping down as CEO of the Chamber. The opportunity got me thinking whether I could make use of my banking experience to do more to serve the business community in Hong Kong. Besides, the great work done by Shirley and others has already laid a solid foundation for me to take the Chamber forward.
B: As you mentioned, you have been involved in the Chamber for many years, including serving as Chairman of the Economic Policy Committee and the Financial and Treasury Services Committee. Why did you take the time to be involved in HKGCC, in addition to your day job?
GL: All of the former and existing members of various committees have also devoted substantial amounts of their precious time to the Chamber’s work – I am only one part of it. In the business world, government policy affects every walk of life, from fiscal and economic policies to all sorts of sectoral regulations and project initiatives. It is important for the Government to understand what is needed to create a good operating environment for businesses. From this perspective, the Chamber is an excellent platform for gathering different views and suggestions from the business sector to advise the Government on issues affecting various industries and proposing useful measures to address those problems.
In addition, the Chamber is a great place for businesses to connect with each other – both local and overseas – to explore new opportunities and to share new knowledge. I would like to stress that no matter how big your business is, it is only a single voice and represents only a narrow view. So participating in the Chamber is also in the interests of oneself, not just to benefit the whole of the business sector. So it is crucial for individual businesses, whether big or small, to participate in a common platform and be part of the collective voice. For these reasons, I deeply believe all Chamber members will find their time well spent. That’s not only my own experience but also that of many businesspeople who I meet in the Chamber.
B: How will your long association with the Chamber help your work?
GL: My long involvement with the Chamber helps me understand thoroughly both the need of members and its function with various stakeholders. In the recent past, I helped resolve the issue of opening bank accounts which Chamber members raised. This is a good example of a dual role being a banker and a Chamber facilitator, and is applicable to many other similar matters.
Further back, to the time when Mainland China was in the process of applying to join the World Trade Organization, I convened a Chamber study to advocate China’s entry as part of the global assessment by WTO members. All these experiences have helped to show me how the Chamber can best serve the business community not just in Hong Kong, but also globally.
Of course, being CEO will be very different from being a member. Even though I have been active in the Chamber for many years, as CEO I will need to lead the Secretariat and support the General Committee in its mandate.
For me, two key roles will involve, firstly serving Chamber members, improving the Chamber’s functions, and connecting all the stakeholders. Secondly, I will play a role in advising the Chairman and the General Committee on important issues.
Throughout my career I have been a mix of an advisor and an executive, both in the business sector and the Government sector. So I hope that my skills and experience will help contribute to the Chamber’s work in an increasingly complicated operating environment.
B: You are often labeled as an economist, in contrast to your predecessors who were mostly from the public sector, but I believe this is not the only field of your expertise.
GL: That is right. People view me as a professional economist, as they may have seen me in the media commenting on the global economy. However, besides this I have been in an executive role for the past 16 years. First of all, in the capacity of running the day-to-day operations in the Asia-Pacific CEO’s Office at HSBC, and also in the bank’s executive committee responsible for matters like interest rate management, strategic initiatives, government policy and regulatory issues.
In the past, I worked in the Government sector as a senior policy officer for many years, so I have a good understanding of public administration. I was a CFO in a manufacturing company, so I know how to run a business. I have also been a lecturer in several tertiary institutions, so I have some experience in the academic and educational areas. I hope this broad spectrum of experience will help me at the Chamber.
B: What are the biggest challenges facing Hong Kong’s business community right now?
GL: Right now, I believe Hong Kong is facing four major challenges.
First of all is the social movement. Not that long ago, Hong Kong’s business environment was quite politically neutral, particularly for SMEs. But recently, many companies feel they have been dragged into politics. Even some businesses that have chosen not to take sides amid the recent unrest have been attacked. So a big challenge is solving the problem of how businesses can operate in an increasingly politicized environment.
The second is the coronavirus. Restarting the economy after the coronavirus recedes is a challenge that the whole business sector will have to face. We will need to work closely with the Government on jump-starting the economy, and also to ensure that the Government understands what businesses will need on the road to recovery.
The third challenge is the new economic order that has been growing globally. In the past few years, we have seen more trade barriers and trends of de-globalization arising. Hong Kong is a free trade port; free trade is our lifeblood. Decoupling from globalization will impact the entire global supply chain, and with it Hong Kong businesses. As a trading city, we need to examine how we can reposition ourselves and come up with new economic drivers to diversify our exposure to various risks affecting the global economy.
Lastly, we are moving into a new chapter of digital operations. This trend is not new, but has been accelerated by the coronavirus, with many people now working from home. How businesses – particularly the smaller ones – will equip themselves to operate in an increasingly digital environment will be a challenge. But this is an area where the Chamber can certainly support Hong Kong companies to adapt.
B: The Covid-19 outbreak has devastated businesses across Hong Kong, and countries around the world are pumping billions into the system to support their economies. What do you think will be the longer term implications for Hong Kong and the global economy?
GL: This is a very difficult time for Hong Kong, but I believe eventually we will get through it. In Hong Kong, we have managed the crisis very well so far, and we also have a strong fiscal reserve to help us recover. But Hong Kong is also a member of the international community, and if other economies are not in good shape, that will affect us too.
It is impossible to predict what will happen next: there may be a long-term global recession, or we could see a V-shaped recovery. So the challenge to the business community is preparing for the recovery. Companies may need to seek new opportunities or change their business models to adapt to a different environment in the future.
The path ahead may not be easy, but the Chamber will be able to provide support and information to help businesses over the coming months and years. Our members are very knowledgeable about their industries, and with the support of Chamber this collective wisdom will help us all to find the way out and to prosper again.