Back to the future

thumbnail grieves 2019.jpg

The French have a saying for it: Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Or, the more things change, the more they feel the same.

This enigmatic contradiction may offer some comfort when we contemplate – to channel a more contemporary and thoroughly American trope from the Temptations and Tamla Motown – the “Ball of Confusion... that’s what the world is today.”

As this magazine goes to press, US President Donald Trump and China’s Xi Jinping are circling each other, building up for another summit as the two sides engage in 11th-hour talks to head off a potentially catastrophic full-blown trade war.

Already, there are signs of severe stresses in the global economy. Interest rates are back on hold, throwing into doubt the cycle of economic tightening seen as a crucial stage in normalization after the pain and painfully long recovery from the global financial crisis. China’s economy is slowing, with particular concerns over slowing consumer spending that dents hopes of a rebalancing in the Chinese economic model.

By the time AmCham hosts the annual summit of Asia Pacific Council of American Chambers on March 4 & 5, we will know whether the US and China have headed off immediate calamity in the shape of Trump’s March 1 deadline to avoid sweeping and swingeing tariff hikes.

If a deal is stuck, will that mark an end to the Trumpian wave of protectionism, or just a temporary respite? Will attention turn to other markets – the EU? Japan? Southeast Asia? Is the trade spat just a temporary phenomenon, or something hardwired into the global economic DNA?

And if calamity and confusion is to become the norm, how can companies best prepare themselves? Moreover, why are international investors piling into Chinese stocks at an unprecedented pace? It’s becoming harder to sort wheat from chaff; noise from meaningful signals.

As AmCham celebrates its 50th birthday, we’ve been trawling through the archives and looking back at our past achievements in search of clues about our likely future, and the perspective of the long-view. Some of the results of this can be seen at our special 50th Anniversary exhibition at the Exchange Square Rotunda from March 18-22.

What becomes immediately clear is that tension, confusion and misunderstanding have always been core risks – if not ever-present features – in the relationship between Washington and Beijing. What’s also shone out has been AmCham’s role as a source of ballast and clear-sighted reason in that relationship: From the foundational moment of our organization, the chamber has been a constant and consistent voice calling for free and fair trade – including over access to China’s markets. By campaigning on behalf of international business, AmCham helped create the conditions for an unprecedented period of global prosperity built upon trade and cross-border investment.

Let’s not forget, AmCham was born during the chaos and economic destruction of the Cultural Revolution – when our members could already clearly see the shoots of opportunity sprouting. Tracing the history of the chamber, there can be moments of cognitive dissonance: Some of the high-tide marks of optimism predate the chronology of perceived wisdom. International business has proved a leading indicator of political change, time and again. Is this another of those moments now?

These twin themes – the wisdom of ages and the search for opportunities in times of chaos – were at the fore when Robert T. Grieves set out AmCham’s priorities for 2019 at his January Inaugural Luncheon. For those that missed it, here are some of the highlights... though first, a parrot joke:

Three Macaws via Flickr and Creative Commons. Recolored in Photoshop

"Being elected Chairman of AmCham reminds me of the parrot story that Dan Tully, a former chairman of Merrill Lynch, used to tell when I worked for him more than 20 years ago," Grieves told the luncheon audience.

One day a man goes to a pet shop to buy a parrot. The assistant takes the man to the parrot section and asks him to choose one of the three parrots on display.

The man asks, "How much is the blue one?" The assistant says, "US$2,000."

The man is shocked and asks why the parrot is so expensive.

The assistant explains, "This parrot is a very special one. He knows typewriting and can type really fast."

"What about the green one?" the man asks.

The assistant says, "He costs US$5,000 because he knows typewriting and can answer incoming telephone calls and take notes."

"What about the red one?" the visibly shaken man asks. 
The assistant says, "That one's US$10,000."

The man looks closely at the red parrot, which appears fairly mean and shabby, and asks, "What does HE do?"
"I don’t know, " the assistant admits, "but the other two parrots call him 'Chairman.'"

This year represents an important landmark, as the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong celebrates its 50th anniversary.

‘May you live in interesting times,’ as the hackneyed English version of a supposed Chinese curse has it, but in fact the curse is fake, with no known source. The nearest real Chinese saying, translated, is: ‘Better to be a dog in a peaceful time, than to be a human in a chaotic period.’

Indeed, this is a chaotic period, what with a slowing global economy, a continuing US-China trade war, North Korea’s unabated nuclear missile development, and growing military competition in the South China Sea. Not to mention Brexit and the current political landscape in the US.

However, it is also a period full of promise, with new scientific and technological breakthroughs being made seemingly every day, and with exciting new initiatives being announced. 

As an American I am by nature an optimist, and I believe that by working together with our chamber’s members, the Hong Kong government and leaders in the Hong Kong business community, the American Chamber in Hong Kong can accomplish great and worthy things this year.

For the past five decades the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong has championed the free flow of information, freedom of expression, the rule of law, and a level playing field for international businesses operating in Greater China and throughout Asia. 

It has defined for itself a unique role as an honest broker, defending Hong Kong’s interests in Washington and Beijing, and advocating on behalf of international business and the interests of its membership throughout Asia.

Stepping stones…

  • Helped defeat the Gore Amendment, a proposal to eliminate tax exemption for income earned by overseas Americans
  • Strong advocate of Hong Kong’s 'one country, two systems' formula enshrined in the Basic Law
  • Lobbied for China’s 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization, a move that arguably helped lift hundreds of millions out of poverty

AmCham Hong Kong will continue to play an influential role in the next 50 years. We are looking at how technology is changing the way people work, and the skills required to manage successful businesses in the next half century.

We will also launch a Future Leaders program, which will bring together a talented crop of young people for a year-long program devoted to building leadership skills across a
variety of sectors as well as develop a pipeline of future chamber leaders.

This year, we want to sharpen our advocacy efforts in both Washington and Beijing. AmCham advocacy on behalf of Hong Kong has become increasingly more important as Hong Kong faces pressure from the north and from Washington as a result of trade war friction and as the Hong Kong economy becomes increasingly more integrated with the Mainland China economy.

We will refine our messages for the Washington Doorknock according to the latest developments amid US-China trade tensions. We look forward to a strong delegation of
business executives joining us to make our case as clear and convincing as possible to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

In our interactions with stakeholders we will underline Hong Kong’s role as a hub for business in Asia and continue to emphasize the city’s traditional role as a gateway into and out of China. We believe this aligns with the US Indo Pacific Strategy and the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, recently passed by Congress, as well as the Hong Kong government’s goal to broaden and deepen collaboration with Asean countries after signing a series of Free Trade Agreements.

Throughout the year we will also focus efforts on rallying US corporations, educational and technical organizations to work with the Hong Kong government to fulfill some of its most important objectives as outlined in Chief Executive Lam’s policy speech. 

In addition, we will seek to bring more US officials to Hong Kong, to better socialize Hong Kong with US elected officials at the federal level, an effort we expect will bear fruit as the year progresses.


The Greater Bay Area

The Greater Bay Area was first outlined by China’s top authorities three years ago to create a new economic growth engine by pooling together the resources of Hong Kong, Macau and nine neighboring cities in Guangdong province. Hong Kong will be the international finance, navigation and trade center, as well as a transport hub. The city will have the role of developing finance, trade, logistics and professional services throughout the GBA.


We see opportunities for US healthcare firms to collaborate with the Hong Kong government in applied research and technological development. Last month Hong Kong University and Harvard University announced that they are setting up a laboratory in Hong Kong Science and Technology Park in an ambitious joint effort to make detection of diseases such as cancer faster, easier and more precise. Earlier this month, the first international research center in Hong Kong to focus on neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia was announced. The center will be established by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Harvard Medical School, the Stanford University School of Medicine, and University College London.

STEM education

American educational institutions can play an important role in preparing Hong Kong students for the workplace of the future. 
Cooperation may range from STEM education for women to applications of fintech in the financial services space. We intend to bolster this initiative with at least one STEM education event held in conjunction with our Future of Work series.

Designing a livable city

American urban design expertise can be leveraged to make Hong Kong a more livable city. Former Harborfront Commissioner Nicholas Brooke a few years ago visited an AmCham Board meeting to discuss the government’s goal of making Hong Kong one of the most livable cities in Asia. 

On behalf of AmCham I asked that government come up with a holistic vision for the Victoria Harbour development in a design-led approach that would invite a world design competition following the great examples of Sydney, New York, London, Amsterdam and others. We believe project quality excellence, environmental safeguards and the public interest should be central components of a project that faces iconic Victoria Harbour. A highest bid approach that puts design as a lower priority sets a bad standard for Hong Kong as a world-class city. This year AmCham will continue to pay close attention to this issue.

The Future of Work

Talent continues to stand out as a priority issue for Hong Kong as it seeks to enhance its competitiveness. Hong Kong should continue to reform its educational system in accordance with its needs and current occupational trends, and consider expanding the import of talent.

The Hong Kong government should also look into opportunities to extend the “Hong Kong model” – for example, staying ahead in global education rankings and aligning with international standards – in Greater Bay Area cities.

We held our first Future of Work conference last month, which brought the focus on our members’ thought-leadership in this area.

See 'the Future is Female' in the January-February issue of AmChamHK.

The environment

Hong Kong’s environmental issues manifest themselves in polluted water, garbage-strewn beaches, and unhealthy air. Through AmCham’s Environment & Sustainability and CSR committees the chamber will advocate practical ways to make Hong Kong cleaner and healthier. AmCham member firms are already vocal in this advocacy effort.