Hong Kong’s Role as ‘China Goes Global’
The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong recently re-launched their annual China conference, which had been dormant for some years.
Their re-launch event, “China’s Economic Reforms: Crossroads or Roundabout?”, was held on May 18 at Hong Kong’s Four Seasons Hotel.
Highly successful conferences involve more than a one-way street of speeches delivered to attendees. Often the real value- added comes through frank dialogue: among speakers, panelists, and audience members.
I rate a business conference as a success if I walk away with some new ideas and insights relevant to my work. I offer even higher marks if the conversation was persuasive enough to change my mind about something. Other people may consider networking opportunities more important than content-related take-aways.
I would give the recent Amcham Hong Kong China event very high marks. Content, interactivity, timing, venue, and logistics were all right on target.
The organizers also struck a good balance in giving corporate sponsors an appropriate role and recognition, without diluting the core contents. Too often, organizers allow sponsoring companies to give promotional presentations, which is counter-productive. It can be the kiss of death for presenter and audience alike.
(Full disclosure: I was the moderator of a panel in this event and played a very small role in the event’s planning. I was reminded of my involvement in organizing Amcham Hong Kong’s first China conference in 1993, on the theme of “Greater China Business Opportunities”. The term “Greater China” was brand new to the business lexicon twenty years ago, and many MNCs were considering whether or not to re-organize around a “Greater China” business unit concept. Prior to that, the Chinese mainland was considered a separate and distinct business unit with little or no interplay with Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan business units.)
The program for this recent Amcham China conference reflected the continuing big changes in the China market, and in Hong Kong’s role in China’s open door and reform process, during these past 20 years.
Charles Li, Chief Executive of Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing Limited (the first mainlander to lead the Exchange — see photo below), spoke in the opening keynote of challenges and opportunities facing Hong Kong, in a generally optimistic tone. Li called for Hong Kong’s further development into a wealth management center for mainland companies and individuals, not unlike China’s Switzerland. He emphasized the need for Hong Kong to take this opportunity more seriously, for example, by amending tax laws, and especially by changing its traditional mindset of being a broker to one of being a deal-maker.
The luncheon keynote was delivered by John Rice, Hong Kong-based Vice Chairman of General Electric, President and CEO of GE Global Growth and Operations. The fact that GE created a new Vice Chairman position based in Hong Kong in 2011, with responsibility for driving global growth, is in itself a very interesting sign of the times.
GE currently has 17,000 employees in China, and 28 joint ventures, a number Rice forecasts will double within the next five years. He described the stages of GE’s journey in China as 1) sourcing; 2) selling; 3) manufacturing; and, now 4) joint venturing with national champion Chinese companies.
Rice tempered his upbeat comments with the admission that China is not an easy market, and that GE was among many MNCs concerned about the future path of FDI in China. He mentioned the recent NDRC-World Bank Report as a positive reaffirmation of future policy directions which leading foreign investors hope to see realized.
Amcham Hong Kong Chairman James Sun (also the first mainlander to lead Amcham Hong Kong) spoke of Hong Kong’s historical role as catalyst and conduit for FDI into China, and its rapidly growing role as a staging point for Chinese companies going global. He said the Chamber has shifted its focus and activities accordingly.
The first panel, which I moderated, was on “Hong Kong’s Role in the 12th 5 Year Plan”. The consensus was that this is a plan anyone doing business with China should study very carefully, because it contains many ground-breaking new directions as well as implications for Hong Kong. Several panelists highlighted the growth potential of the health care and senior care sectors in particular.
Following that, delegates were offered the choice of three break-out panels to attend. In a departure from practice at past Amcham Hong Kong China conferences, one of these — “Chinese Companies Going Global ” — was in Putonghua only. There wasn’t an empty seat in the room for this very lively discussion.
One view which emerged was that while the heads of China’s big SOEs are generally well informed about what Hong Kong has to offer as a staging point for going global, many non-SOE business leaders still have much to learn about Hong Kong’s potential advantages, benefits of its legal system, etc.
Overall, judging by the comments of 28 speakers and panelists at this event, Hong Kong faces plenty of challenges, but on balance, the outlook looks very bright indeed, especially insofar as ‘China Goes Global’ is concerned.