The Bulletin: Congratulations on being elected HKGCC Chairman. You have a busy job as Group Director at CLP Holdings: why have you made the time for your commitment to the Chamber?
Betty Yuen: I am very grateful for the opportunity to lead the Chamber. As we all know, the last few years have been very difficult for Hong Kong. Three years ago, I could not have imagined we would be in a situation like this: not only from the pandemic point of view, but also geopolitics – it is quite a different environment.
I feel that the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce provides a very good platform where the business community can contribute and help to revive the economy.
I’ve been working with the Chamber for many years and we have excellent resources in the form of our membership, with big corporates and SMEs, representing the whole Hong Kong business community. It is not just about the Chairman – I hope that, collectively, we can contribute to Hong Kong’s economic recovery.
B: As you say, Hong Kong businesses have endured a tough time recently. What will be your priorities as you step up as Chairman?
BY: As a business chamber, we will focus on how we can revive the economy. The first priority is to resume quarantine-free travel with the Mainland and the rest of the world, and we will continue to lobby the Government on this issue.
This will put us in a better position to continue to develop Hong Kong’s position as a global financial and business centre. I work for CLP, so decarbonisation is already a major topic for us, but sustainability has now moved to the top of the agenda for all businesses. The green economy is actually a high-growth area, and one where Hong Kong can make the most of its advantages. We can also tap into the growth of the technology sector, and in the Greater Bay Area.
Despite the difficulties of the last few years, Hong Kong’s foundations are still very strong. We are a global financial hub with unrivalled expertise. Our role as a connector will continue to bring benefits: China remains the world’s second-largest economy with very strong growth in specific sectors, and Hong Kong is in a perfect position to play a role in this development.
B: As an external-facing economy, Hong Kong has been affected by issues outside the city. What can we do to address these challenges?
BY: It is important for us to be able to tell the Hong Kong story. In recent years, we have been affected by political issues that are not of Hong Kong’s making.
In the business world we are not driven by politics, so I think we can be a powerful force to explain the real situation in Hong Kong to the outside world, including the Mainland. We can tell the true Hong Kong story, that this is a good place to do business, to work and to study – and it is an extremely safe city.
Once travel resumes, we can tap into the global business community by meeting with delegations visiting Hong Kong, and during our Chamber missions to the Mainland and overseas. Companies and people based here understand the many advantages of Hong Kong as a business city, so sharing their insights is definitely an area where we can play an important role.
B: What long-term changes has the pandemic brought to the business environment in Hong Kong?
BY: I am concerned that some opportunities may be lost forever if we don’t have a plan to resume quarantine-free travel. Hong Kong is a trade, aviation and logistics hub, and a global business city. But while our borders remain closed, people are having to try other cities to survive, and they may not come back.
As for tourists – in the past, many travellers were repeat visitors to Hong Kong. But once people make a change and have new experiences in other places, then not all will go back to their former travel habits.
On a more positive note, I think the changes to the way we work – particularly the use of technology for communication – are here to stay. I don’t believe that technology will replace human interaction, which is very important. But I think some level of hybrid is likely, where companies will have to be more flexible, perhaps allowing employees to work from home for a certain percentage of the time. I think this is a positive trend: there may be some trade off in efficiency, but we will find a balance.
B: Besides the pandemic, what other concerns do you have about Hong Kong’s business environment?
BY: Unfortunately, I don’t see the geopolitical issues going away in the near term – particularly Sino-U.S. relations. Hong Kong businesspeople need to bear in mind that they may be caught up in the tensions, because companies can be put under U.S. sanctions without warning.
As Hong Kong is the super-connector between the West and the East, we need to remain vigilant and we will have to walk a tightrope at times. But sometimes life is like that: we have to understand the environment and find a way through the difficulties.
Another major concern is the global supply chain. We have all seen the vulnerabilities when there are interruptions in production, because the world is so interconnected – a single product can be made from components manufactured in more than ten countries.
Businesses will have to be a lot more vigilant about risk management. A lot of the risks are beyond our control – like the pandemic or geopolitical developments – so businesses will have to consider diversifying risks, which will likely mean additional costs.
The world is still very interconnected, and I don’t believe we can decouple. Having said that, many countries are examining their supply chain vulnerabilities and considering where they can become more self-reliant, which may impact Hong Kong in the longer term.
B: There has been growing concern about a “brain drain” recently. How can we ensure that Hong Kong retains and attracts the best talent?
BY: The pandemic has definitely affected the expat community, which is very important to Hong Kong as an international business centre. But my own assessment is that this is a temporary situation that will change once the pandemic is over. Hong Kong is a very vibrant city that has always seen a lot of movement in and out by professionals from around the world. I expect that expats will return, but we will need to ensure that Hong Kong is still an attractive city for global professionals.
For the Hong Kong local population, this is not the first time that we have seen worries about a brain drain. But I think some of the people who are leaving now will return to Hong Kong. Some will build new lives overseas, but – like after 1997 – others may find that life is not as easy as they had imagined and will come back.
At the same time, it is important that we provide opportunities and upward mobility for our young people. Housing is definitely a big issue: if people don’t see the prospect of having a comfortable home in the future, this is destabilizing. It is important that the Government tackles this issue, although we all appreciate it is a very difficult challenge.
In terms of opportunities, I’m more optimistic. Hong Kong is still a very strong financial centre which will continue to provide a range of jobs, and there are also huge opportunities in the green economy. And we will continue to benefit from China’s growth – for example, it is a global leader in electric vehicles and solar power.
The Greater Bay Area is already providing more opportunities, and the Northern Metropolis development will increase the connections and cooperation across the region. The Northern Metropolis is a very ambitious plan that will also help Hong Kong to grow in a more sustainable way and encourage the technology and innovation sector.
B: Hong Kong needs to dramatically cut its carbon emissions to meet its 2050 Paris Agreement targets. Do you think we will achieve this?
BY: In Hong Kong, the power sector accounts for the lion’s share of the responsibility, with about 60% of emissions, and another 20% coming from transport. For the energy sector, Hong Kong is a very small place and we don’t have the landmass for large-scale renewable energy projects, so we have to look to cooperation with the Mainland to import green energy and nuclear, which is a zero-carbon fuel. So I think it is possible, but it will involve support from the Mainland as well as large infrastructure development.
In transport, I believe the shift from combustion to electric vehicles is achievable, although in Hong Kong, adoption has been relatively slow compared to the Mainland. So I would like to see the Hong Kong Government be more aggressive in setting policies to help the transition for buses and commercial vehicles as well as private vehicles.
I think meeting the 2050 deadline will be difficult, but it can be done. And we must do it, because climate change is a real risk, and for the sake of future generations we need to take action now.
B: The new Administration will take office in July. What would you like to see from the Government in the first year or so?
BY: John Lee has set out his manifesto, and one of its key aims is the streamlining of Government processes, which is very welcome news for businesses in Hong Kong. He plans for the Government to be more agile in implementing policies – not just in terms of the civil service mentality but also legislation.
Hong Kong has a lot of outdated legislation. In the infrastructure business we have suffered from this problem, and it affects many sectors. In housing, for example, even after a piece of land is identified for development, it can take years before building can start.
Some of the problems with legislation are down to interpretation of the regulations or judicial review and public consultation. Hong Kong people generally are very efficient, but sometimes we are bound by rules that are outdated, and the civil service tends to take a risk-averse approach.
If processes become more streamlined, and civil servants more flexible, I think the new Administration has a very good opportunity to really address the city’s housing and other fundamental issues, and help the economy to kick off again.