Anson Chan, Convenor, Hong Kong 2020

By Kenny Lau


There are few – men or women – who have accomplished as much as Anson Chan, former Chief Secretary of the Hong Kong government under British colonial rule and after the handover to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. In nearly forty years of public service before retiring in 2001, she played a key role in the development of Hong Kong’s economic infrastructure, including the new international airport, port expansion and deregulation of the telecommunications market.

As Chief Secretary, Chan was the first woman and the first Chinese to hold the second-highest governmental position. She is well known for her stand on transparent and accountable government, on democracy and on safeguarding the rights and freedoms enshrined in the “one country, two systems” concept.

“I believe in equality, human dignity and a pluralistic society. I believe in a transparent, honest and accountable government. And I believe that all of us have a part to play in creating a fair and just society where every individual can realize his or her potential irrespective of race, sex or religion,” she says. “I’ve learned in my career that ‘no man is an island,” and we all need support and teamwork to deal with the tasks at hand.”

“A particularly rewarding aspect of my role as Chief Secretary responsible for the 190,000-strong civil service was the opportunity to set the tone for ethical, clean, compassionate leadership and to lead by example, nurturing talents within the service and ensuring that capable officers had opportunities to develop and assume leadership in their respective departments,” she adds.

A lifetime achiever, Chan is a recipient of the Grand Bauhinia Medal (Hong Kong SAR’s highest honor) and is an honorary Dame Grand Cross of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George, an honor conferred by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain. She also holds the title of Chevalier of the National Order of the Legion d’Honneur, an honor conferred by the President of France.

Despite her retirement, Chan remains active in the community. In December 2007, she stood as a candidate in a by-election for a seat in the Legislative Council and won by a convincing margin. Chan is also Convenor of Hong Kong 2020, a small think tank focused on democracy and governance issues, and a founding director of Project Citizens Foundation which aims to promote civic awareness and participation.

Her story in Hong Kong started in 1948 when she came here with her family from Shanghai. “We expected to stay only temporarily until the civil turmoil in the mainland died down. That was not to be,” she recalls. “I grew up in a large family where I was influenced by a strong sense of public service. My upbringing was strict, and I was encouraged to pursue higher education and cultivate a sense of duty to family and society.”

An alumnus of Sacred Heart Canossian College and the University of Hong Kong, Chan joined the Hong Kong government straight out of university “after responding to a newspaper advertisement and passing the stipulated examinations,” became a civil servant, and soon learned that in public service, there is no such thing as privacy because “every aspect of your life is open to scrutiny.”

It can also be a challenge having to “deal with the occasional chauvinists who have pre-conceived ideas about what roles a woman should have,” she notes. “My advice is to deal with these people firmly and politely, without losing your cool, and to always rely on reasoned arguments to prove your case. More importantly, I see equal opportunities for women in all the ranks of the Civil Service. There is no artificial impediment to rising to the top.”

“What you should do is to make a conscious choice about what you want to do with your life and to give it your very best, whatever it is that you are looking to achieve,” she believes. “If you want to pursue a career, pick something that interests you. And your interest may not be apparent at first; so, it is perfectly alright to give different jobs a try before deciding on what is right for you.

“Another point is, it is not always easy to strike a balance between work and life. Sometimes, we need to learn to say ‘no’ and not take on more than what we can handle. Your priorities as a professional woman may also change from time to time.”