Re-elected for a second term in 2017, AmCham Chairman Walter Dias reflects on chamber activities of the past year amid surprising global development and highlights the continuation of AmCham 2020, a five-year strategic plan designed to better meet the needs of members, with a focus on formulating improved communications, local and international media content and awareness as a stronger, consistent voice on key issues affecting the business community of Hong Kong

By Kenny Lau

AmCham Hong Kong will focus on enhancing its brand in 2017 by improving the communication process to highlight the chamber’s advocacy work for members, Walter Dias said in his inaugural speech as AmCham Chairman for a second term, noting the continuation of AmCham 2020, a five-year strategic plan designed to better meet members’ future needs, with strengthened leadership and staffing, enhanced coordination between committees and the board, and expanded events, delegations and briefings.

“This year, we’ll focus on formulating improved communications, local and international media content and awareness,” he says. “We’ll increase the coordination of our advocacy work and activities between the committees to assure a stronger, consistent voice on key issues impacting our members and the community. We’ll also introduce a stronger, interactive and more mobile friendly website and increase our use of social media in the market to convey our positions.”

A year in review

It was an extremely busy year in 2016 for AmCham, with more than 300 events including several signature large-scale conferences – all designed to share knowledge and create value for members of the chamber, Dias reflects. “These are all important forums where extremely valuable ideas from experts from all over the world are shared. We were also privileged to host US Consul General Kurt Tong in a discussion on the importance of a strong US-Hong Kong relationship.”

“In fact, we continued to focus on building government relations by hosting many roundtables with senior Hong Kong government officials including Chief Executive CY Leung, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam and Financial Secretary John Tsang,” he says. “Our China Affairs Department maintained a robust schedule of China-related programs during the year. In addition to the China Conference, we hosted over 33 events during the year.”

The China-related programs in 2016 included the annual Beijing Doorknock and other meetings with various government officials to further strengthen connections with the central and regional governments, numerous business delegation trips to China for meetings with top executives at benchmark Chinese companies such as Gree, DJI, Huawei and Harvest Fund Management, and many closed-door CEO roundtable meetings to address peer CEOs and share information.

More importantly, AmCham committees continue to play a critical role in advocacy on a variety of issues regarding Hong Kong’s business community, Dias stresses. “Our most recent is a comprehensive list of recommendations based on extensive input from our committees for the Chief Executive’s Policy Address.

We appreciate the government’s vision and efforts in maintaining Hong Kong as one of the world’s leading cities and their openness to seeking input from the business community.”

“2016 was certainly a year of change and surprising developments all over the globe, including the Brexit vote and US elections,” he notes. “China also struggled to achieve an economic soft landing as it rebalanced from an export- and infrastructure investment-driven economy to a consumption-led economy. It was a volatile year in China with a rocky stock market and weakening RMB. 2017 begins with major changes, bringing heightened uncertainty and risk.”

The US perspective

With a new class of US political leadership in Washington DC, much of the change will soon begin, bringing new challenges and opportunities on trade in the Asia Pacific region as well as Sino-US relations, Dias believes. “Although there has been much concern that the new administration will have a negative impact on trade and business around the world, it remains to be seen, and there are even signs of positive developments.”

“The International Monetary Fund, for example, just increased the US economic growth forecast to 2.3 percent this year and 2.5 percent in 2018, as a result of likely US tax cuts, regulatory reform and an increase in infrastructure investment by the new administration. This is a significant improvement from the 2016 growth rate of 1.6 percent, and it could have a positive impact on trade and business activity in Hong Kong, China and Asia.”

“Despite the loss of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), AmCham will continue to push and promote the goals of free and fair trade, as well as continued US leadership and commitment in the region,” he emphasizes. “We will also establish closer ties and more regular dialogue with Washington think tanks and key stakeholders to become an informative platform for our members on the latest developments and related challenges and opportunities for business.”

In Hong Kong

“One Country, Two Systems” remains a core component of Hong Kong’s ability to achieve a free, open and competitive economy with a high standard of living, Dias stresses. “The rule of law, independent judiciary and fundamental freedoms have allowed Hong Kong to achieve its global success and will continue to play an important role in the future. This year, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) celebrates its 20th anniversary, and we congratulate the people of Hong Kong on their success.”

“This year, Hong Kong will also face a change in administration with the upcoming Chief Executive election,” he adds. “We expect a new administration will continue with policies to strengthen Hong Kong’s role and strategic position as a leading global financial and trading center. “We will strive to build new relationships and engage with the new administration to promote policies to strengthen Hong Kong’s status as a world class city and hub for international businesses in the region.”

The China market

Because of Hong Kong’s unique environment, it is a perfect platform for Chinese companies with global ambitions, and Hong Kong remains a perfect gateway for foreign direct investment (FDI) into China, Dias notes. “China’s 13th Five-Year Plan presents specific opportunities for Hong Kong in China’s continued economic development, and the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle allows Hong Kong to have a unique role in helping mainland enterprises go global.”

“The signing of the Agreement on Trade in Services between Mainland China and Hong Kong within the CEPA framework is very positive and will create new and valuable opportunities for Hong Kong’s professional services industries,” he says. “We believe Hong Kong’s business community will create great value for the entire Pearl River Delta (PRD) region by providing foreign direct expertise (FDE) with professional services on the mainland, especially with the Belt & Road initiative.”

Given the increasing transportation connectivity between Hong Kong and cities of the PRD, AmCham is well positioned to build relationships across the border and maximize business opportunities for members of the chamber, Dias adds. “Through our delegations, visits and roundtable events, we’ll continue to be the platform for regional and international businesses to access the latest policy directions and plans for Hong Kong and PRD while forging pragmatic relations.”

Advocacy priorities

To be a part of Hong Kong’s efforts to remain competitive on the stage of global business, AmCham will seek to build upon an agenda of specific priorities targeting areas deemed critical to the continuing success of the city in an era of dramatic disruptions. They are indeed timely advocacy priorities for Hong Kong if it is to be a conduit and a super connector linking the region with the rest of the world in the 21st century.

      1. Pearl River Delta - One Megalopolis, Two Systems

The Pearl River Delta region (of which Hong Kong is a part) is poised to be a global powerhouse, Dias notes, given the significant transportation infrastructure projects including the Hong Kong-Shenzhen-Guangzhou high speed link and the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge currently under construction, in addition to the increasing financial connectivity provided by the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Stock Connect.

“The strengths of Shenzhen’s R&D and tech manufacturing sectors, combined with Hong Kong’s expertise in finance and professional services, strong university system and international connectivity, would create a formidable competitor,” he points out. “Hong Kong should pursue the idea of ‘One Megalopolis, Two Systems’ to create a proactive cooperation with PRD cities.”

      2. Smart City Development and Innovation

The utilization of the rapidly evolving information and communication technology to develop Hong Kong into a smart city will create tremendous opportunities for growth in the city, Dias believes. In fact, several related initiatives have been launched recently by the Hong Kong government, including an allocation of HK$500 million for the Innovation and Technology Bureau to enhance government services and a HK$500 million Innovation and Technology Fund for Better Living.

“In our Policy Address submission, we recommended Hong Kong create a Smart City Development Council to better coordinate efforts among the various departments and agencies to help expedite development,” he says. “And we will establish a Smart City Group and be a leading voice and active participant in shaping Hong Kong Smart City vision and initiatives. We believe US companies and multi-national firms will have a strong role to play in this area.”

      3. Education and a Multi-Talented Workforce

Education remains a key priority for AmCham. That’s because Hong Kong needs to educate, develop and retain top talent in order to remain competitive, especially as an international financial center and smart city, Dias reiterates. “Hong Kong should assure the education system can meet the needs of new industries with improved IT literacy, English proficiency, vocational training and global awareness.”

In addition, Hong Kong’s labor policies need to be revised to assure the city can attract and retain high quality talent including those from overseas as necessary, he also says. “AmCham will continue to advocate for workplace diversity and inclusion to ensure Hong Kong remains competitive in attracting top talents required for building an innovative and smart city.”

4. Hong Kong’s Belt & Road Opportunities

With a stable legal system and position as a hub for the movement of capital, information and people, Hong Kong is exceptionally well placed to commercialize opportunities from the Belt & Road initiative, Dias suggests. “We applaud the Hong Kong Monetary Authority’s decision to establish the Infrastructure Financing Facilitation Office to help Hong Kong take full advantage of Belt & Road business opportunities.”

“We encourage the government to continue working with Mainland China to establish Hong Kong as a premier choice for financial, legal, engineering, design and consulting services related to this initiative,” he adds. “AmCham will continue to provide vision and leadership and work with our partners here in Hong Kong, the United States and China to create a better Hong Kong for the entire community.”

“Despite the sweeping changes and challenges around the world, I remain optimistic of our future,” Dias asserts. “We may encounter some bumps along the way, but Hong Kong has a bright role to play in this dynamic region.”