Published: 18:12, May 22, 2024
Choi: HK can work closely with GBA cities to attract investors
By Eugene Chan
Chairman of the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce, Hong Kong Jonathan Choi (right) speaks on TVB’s Straight Talk program on May 14, 2024. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Jonathan Choi, chairman of the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce, Hong Kong, is on Straight Talk this week, to talk about how Hong Kong can collaborate with other ASEAN economies. He says Hong Kong can work closely with Shenzhen and other Greater Bay Area cities to expand our own offerings to attract the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and other investors.

Check out the full transcript of TVB’s Straight Talk host Dr Eugene Chan’s interview with Jonathan Choi:

Chan: Welcome to Straight Talk. I'm Eugene Chan. Our guest this evening is the president of the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce of Hong Kong, Dr Jonathan Choi. Dr Choi is the chairman of Sunwah Group, which covers eight principal areas, including seafood and foodstuff, real estate, financial services, technology and media. The group's activities extend deep into the Chinese mainland, as well as to Macao, Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore, Japan and across the oceans to Canada, the United States and Australia. Accordingly, Dr Choi has been awarded the Grand Bauhinia Medal for his work in integrating Hong Kong with the mainland and connecting with the world. As a testament to his far-reaching influence, he has also received awards from governments in Vietnam, Korea, Japan and France. He holds a wide range of public positions, which includes being a Standing Committee member of the CPPCC and council member of various international universities. Welcome, Jonathan!

Choi: Nice to meet you.

Chan: Thank you for coming to our show. And I know it's a very rare occasion that you take interviews and I'm sure the viewers will treasure your comments. Despite currently the tough times we're having in the world and Hong Kong, Hong Kong people have always prided themselves for being resilient and be able to rise to any challenge and with the current geopolitical tensions, in particular, we have been looking at new markets, such as the ASEAN, which is in fact the fifth largest economy in the world and our second largest trading partner. The chief executive has made his first visit in November 2022, two weeks after the inaugural Hong Kong ASEAN Summit, and then led the delegation to visit Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. And more recently, our CE, in January, met with the consul generals of 10 ASEAN countries in Hong Kong. So, given your background, I know that you have invested in the ASEAN for a long time, could you set the scene for us, by giving us a brief overview of the current economic relationship between Hong Kong and the ASEAN countries?

Choi: First of all, I would like to say that China and Hong Kong have a very good relationship with ASEAN countries. As for myself, I've been in Vietnam since the 1970s, it's almost 55 years already. And also there are so many overseas Chinese in ASEAN countries. Therefore, Hong Kong has a very close and good connection with these countries. Therefore, I would like to say that given the geopolitical situation now, Hong Kong has a good opportunity to work with ASEAN countries because most of them have very good connection with China and with Hong Kong.

Chan: What were the main areas of collaboration in the past?

Choi: In the past, mainly Hong Kong companies would like to invest in factories because of the cheap land, cheap labor. Therefore, many textile companies, shoe companies, their factories, investing in these countries, other than that are strong in real estate, they build property, hotels and many more.

Chan: Alright, so based on your experience, what changes have occurred in ASEAN, especially in recent years? And would that be the traction for Hong Kong businesses to go in right now?

Choi: I think the world has changed, you know, in the past 20 or 30 years, these countries have been growing up. They earned a lot of foreign exchange from overseas countries like the US and Europe. And now the young population, they are educated, and the middle class is coming up. Therefore, there's a good market for new products from Hong Kong.

Chan: Right, just now you mentioned that a lot of overseas Chinese are actually residing or doing business in the ASEAN countries. So, how likely do you think, with Hong Kong people, Hong Kong companies, going to invest there, say being the first time, do you think that, as you said, most probably, we will be welcomed there. How likely are we going to succeed and what is our unique selling point to them as well?

Choi: I think Hong Kong is strong in finance and also strong in the service industry. In the past, we did manufacturing and now we can provide the service industry for them. And besides that, most importantly, Hong Kong is part of the GBA, Greater Bay Area.

Chan: Exactly.

Choi: We work together with them and bring these companies from GBA and then co-invest in the ASEAN countries.

Chan: And that will answer my next question to you is, what will be the value that we bring to the table? For example, going to Singapore and to the ASEAN obviously because of our connection with the GBA.

Choi: I think with Singapore, the situation is different because Singapore is similar to Hong Kong. They are strong in the finance and service industry and, therefore, we are partners but at the same time we are competitors. But in different ASEAN countries like in Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, that's a different case. Therefore, we can bring our GBA partners together and we can invest in factories, property and many more in these countries.

Chan: Right, last month, you did bring a 70-member delegation to Cambodia and the prime minister Hun Manet met with you and the delegation. How would you evaluate this trip and what are the opportunities for our entrepreneurs?

Choi: For the Cambodians, of course in the past there was not a very good image of the country. But now everything has changed because the new prime minister is highly educated and the cabinet is different. And this time when the big delegation comes to Cambodia, what they request us to invest in Cambodia is different from traditional businesses. They request what our China's talking about – digital economy and green economy. Therefore, they would like us to bring in EV, electric cars, say, the clean energy storage system, solar energy and many more, which is they're looking for green and smart in the future.

Chan: Right and actually, at the end of last year, we saw four Cambodia state cabinet secretaries also visiting the GBA as well and participating in the first China and Cambodia summit. So, from your observation, what did they like about the GBA? Because we all look at collaboration, it has to go both ways.

Choi: First of all, I think Cambodia is an agricultural country. First of all, they want us to buy their agricultural products like their cashew nuts and rice and many more. And for the investment, besides having the property investment in the past, they would like us to bring in the new energy production line into Cambodia, for example, like EV cars and also the green energy storage system.

Chan: So, it looks like the green economy and also the technology work will be the one that's most welcomed by the ASEAN countries.

Choi: Exactly, that's the case because you know, in the past, China had a lot of production capacity. They can work in these countries, but now they want the smart and green facilities to be done in these countries.

Chan: What do you see from your point of view will be the main challenges or what we could use the word "obstacle" for Hong Kong businesses to be successful there?

Choi: At the moment for ASEAN countries, we have to understand that ASEAN is composed of 10 countries, 10 political systems, 10 governments and many more. All the legal systems are different and the language – everything is different. Therefore, we have to treat them as 10 different countries instead of one. That is the obstacle and also, every country has their own practices and way of doing business. And also the legal system is different. We need to be careful about that.

Chan: Right. So, you are now the president of the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce, and how will you facilitate this sort of a dialogue between the 10 different cultures that you just speak?

Choi: It's very fortunate that Hong Kong Chinese General Chamber of Commerce, we work closely with Singapore and Thailand, Chinese General Chamber of Commerce, and we have established a so-called World Chinese Entrepreneurial Conference in 1991. And the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce, we are one of the convener and the secretariat is in Hong Kong, therefore, we can connect all these people together, so they can very easily be connected with all these 10 countries. Every country, most of them, they’ve got a Chinese general Chamber of Commerce and their partners.

Chan: Yeah, so say a lot of Chinese have been there for many years.

Choi: Yes.

Chan: And how will our government, or say, if they have any policies, or anything, how can the government help our business entrepreneurs to establish ourselves into this new market?

Choi: I think the chief executive has done a very good job. He led a big delegation to Southeast Asia. Last time we worked together, to Indonesia, Malaysia, and because of him, we can meet the high leaders of every country. And when a big delegation is going there, we are well treated. Therefore, we can meet many business opportunities. And I think that is good work done by the Hong Kong government.

Chan: Right. I mean, you have a lot of positions. You're also a member of the Chief Executive Advisory Group. What else would you advise, say the current government apart from bringing a good delegation to visit them, what else can we do to facilitate even sort of quicker and more deeper exchanges?

Choi: I think the position of Hong Kong is firstly, we are the world financial center. That's very important. Secondly, Hong Kong is an international city, we have to promote Hong Kong is an international city that not only Hong Kong we go into these countries, we can bring the mainland companies from GBA and whole China, we can bring them together to ASEAN countries, because Hong Kong you know, we are strong in financial and services industry, but for manufacturing, I think the mainland is much better.

Chan: Just now you mentioned one of the attractions to going to the ASEAN countries is the lower costs of labor and land and with that we see more and more companies investing in places like Vietnam. What will be that … would there be a serious impact on our own China's manufacturing industry?

Choi: I think the situation in China is ... because of the geopolitical situation, some countries may impose some restrictions on Chinese products. Therefore, they have to look for another opportunity, for example, coming to Vietnam, Cambodia or Thailand to be processed there so that they can get the country of origin, made in Vietnam and made in Cambodia and it will be much easier to work with Western countries. But in the long run, I don't think… it works or not, I don't know.

Chan; Right. Alright. Let's take a break now. But viewers, stay tuned. We will be right back.

Jonathan Choi, chairman of the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce, Hong Kong, speaks on TVB’s Straight Talk program on May 14, 2024. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Chan: Thank you for staying with us on Straight Talk. We have been talking with Dr Jonathan Choi, chairman of the Hong Kong Chinese General Chamber of Commerce, about how Hong Kong can collaborate with ASEAN economies. So, Chairman or President, I think we are very fortunate that you are sharing your experiences and your views with the viewers because I am sure a lot of people are looking into investing into ASEAN countries. You have mentioned that they have a very strong presence of the Chinese culture that helps our integration. And hopefully with more tourists coming to Hong Kong, we have even deeper collaboration as we hope. Let's look even further away. Let’s look at the Belt and Road Initiative, which includes the Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Now you being the co-chairman of the Belt and Road Business Association Alliance, what specific initiatives would you like to see the Hong Kong or the central government to help support and promote the participation of Hong Kong to become, what we call, a super-connector in this initiative?

Choi: I think for the Chinese government, they initiated the Belt and Road. And for this initiation, we can do many things all over the world. And for Hong Kong, I just feel that we have to focus, firstly, focus in ASEAN countries, they are mentioned already. Other than that, the new areas that is important for Hong Kong is the Gulf countries.

Chan: I see.

Choi: Recently the chief executive and our President Xi Jinping, he went to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and many more. And we just feel that this is the new area that Hong Kong can look into because you know, they are rich in the resources, oil and gas, and also more importantly they have a lot of money. Hong Kong is a financial center, we can work closely with them. Besides they need many green technology and a smart city, and all these. Therefore, Hong Kong, we are strong in technology and also service industry, we can really work closely with them. Besides, the Gulf countries, I think traditionally, the EU is very important for us. And of course, I mean the EU including the UK also. Therefore, the UK plus the EU. And I think this is a traditional area that Hong Kong has been trading and working closely with them. Therefore as Chinese General Chamber of Commerce, we cannot cover the whole world. Therefore, we focus more firstly in the ASEAN countries, northeast Asia, that is South Korea and Japan. And then we work closely with the Gulf countries, and also the EU and the UK. That is what we are doing at the moment.

Chan: Right. Thank you for giving a very broad view of all the potential markets we can tap into. You know in the 14th 5-year Plan of our nation, we have been tasked with like 8 major centers. That is our role, and Hong Kong actually will need to grow as well. But one area that we've been talking about is the size of our population, for example. If you look at Hong Kong and Guangzhou and Shenzhen, they have more people than Hong Kong.

Choi: Yes.

Chan: And even Foshan, actually even have higher population at the moment. Of course, we are not wanting to have a sort of super crowded city, but we need the population to grow. So, how should you see Hong Kong will grow in this national policy? How can we grow with the guidance and support from the central government, from your point of view?

Choi: I think Hong Kong, most importantly, we need to integrate in the development of the Greater Bay Area. That is very important. And yesterday I was in Shenzhen, and I have been appointed to be the chair of the Shenzhen Hong Kong Association. And I would like to connect more Hong Kong and Shenzhen. We need the young talent from the GBA and also the whole country into Hong Kong. The size of the population in Hong Kong is not big, 7.5 million people. We need not only the young talent, we also need population. You see, but there is a bit, you know, some different opinion, we understand that. But being a big city, we need population. Therefore, the human resources to support our industries, and also young talents for the development. We need both. Therefore, hopefully the Hong Kong government, if not doing that already, bring more talent and people from the mainland to Hong Kong.

Chan: Right. So Dr Choi, I think you have answered many people’s questions in their minds because I remember last week, we had the Global Talent Summit.

Choi: Yes.

Chan: And I remember some of the reporters were asking yes, we have new talents coming to Hong Kong, but a lot of them with a mainland background although they are from overseas. So, are we not being international? But what you are saying now, we are doing exactly the right thing because we need the mainland talents to help Hong Kong to grow.

Straight Talk presenter Eugene Chan (left) interviews Jonathan Choi, chairman of the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce, Hong Kong, on TVB on May 14, 2024. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Choi: Yes. I think Hong Kong, we need talents from all over the world. But now we have the young talents, but many of them, they are educated in the western countries already. Therefore, I think they got the western experience and Chinese experience. Therefore, it is good for Hong Kong. And I think if the competitiveness and the attractiveness of Hong Kong is improving, I think there will be more talent from all over the world is coming, not only from China, maybe Japan, Korea, the US, even Europe. I have many friends from these countries coming to Hong Kong already.

Chan: You also had another initiative by suggesting setting up a Silk Road data center and arbitration center in Hong Kong. Can you share your thoughts on why you suggest those centers?

Choi: We just feel that at the moment, for the data flow from China to Hong Kong or international world is not easy. Therefore, we need to have a flow of this data for the commercial use or the medical use, and for academic use. We need them. Therefore, we are talking about in the loop between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, there is a place, there is a “Hetao”. We can really work on that. And at the same time, Hong Kong, we have the infrastructure for the telecommunication. Therefore, if you can put another data center, big data center in Hong Kong, I think it is good for Hong Kong in the future, because Hong Kong in the future we need to be strong in technology, smart city, and many more. Therefore, we just feel that data communication is very important for Hong Kong.

Chan: Right. So, Jonathan, I also want to ask you a direct question that just came to my mind. Recently we hear a lot of news on the grape vine that because of the geopolitics, Hong Kong's role of being an international financial center has been kind of hard hit because there are very few IPOs coming, and so, our international financial center, especially legal firms, are actually suffering, facing huge challenges. Do you think Hong Kong can facilitate like infrastructure development and financing for Belt and Road projects in the ASEAN countries? Will that be a good way out for Hong Kong?

Choi: I think first of all, we have to create Hong Kong’s competitiveness, how to attract international investors in Hong Kong. I think Hong Kong recently, we are hard hit by the environment and the stock market was not performing well in the past few months. But now, you know, it is coming back. The confidence and attractiveness of Hong Kong is coming back. Therefore we should have confidence, first of all. Secondly, besides attracting IPOs from the Chinese mainland, more importantly, we need international investments. Therefore, ASEAN is the place that we have to look into. For example, like Vietnam, like Indonesia, Thailand, there are many mature successful companies. We hope that they can come to Hong Kong for IPO because most of the ASEAN countries, these businessmen, they go to Singapore. But they can have another choice, another choice must be Hong Kong. Therefore, we need to do something for that.

Chan: Right, so that means if we engage them more, if they come to Hong Kong more, we have a much better chance than … at least give them another choice than just Singapore, isn’t it?

Choi: Exactly.

Chan: Right. So, we are now quite at the end of our discussion. We have covered a lot of the areas, although only a very short time. So, what is your general outlook for the Hong Kong economy? See, you just mentioned the confidence is coming back. But a lot of viewers will say to you “Dr Choi, we are worried.” So, what would you say to them right now?

Choi: I think most importantly, our advantage is we get the support from our motherland – that is most important. And at the same time, we connect the whole international world – that is our strength. Therefore, in the long run, we need to achieve our competitiveness and attractiveness to all these international investors to come back to Hong Kong. That is what we should do.

Chan: Right. Another thing is obviously Hong Kong road map is closely linked with the mainland. When you see a rebound in the mainland markets?

Choi: I think it is coming up but because of the political tension, it is not easy, we know that. Therefore, first of all, we need to build up confidence, build up our good economy, and attract more investors back to the mainland. That is most important.

Chan: Right. Thank you for your very direct answer. So, I can ask you the one final question. You now being the chair of the GBA Entrepreneurs Alliance, how do you see our 9+2 cities within the GBA coordinating and complementing each other to maximize this GBA’s and the nation’s development? How do you see that?

Choi: I think the GBA is already working closely together already. But some industries maybe look for their own interests, they are very competitive. Therefore I would like to say that if the central government and the Guangdong government can look into it and collaborate together, we can be more efficient and effective.

Chan: Do you think our current government has that determination?

Choi: I think so. I think we will do it in the future.

Chan: So, what shall the businesses … what shall we do to support this government in order to make this work for everybody?

Choi: We need to make more proposals for them. For example, like our container terminal, it is a pity that it dropped below top 10 already.

Chan: Exactly.

Choi: Therefore, how we can change our business model and work closely with the mainland, so that we have the division of labor, no keen competition, and we work together. That is what we should do.

Chan: I am afraid that’s all the time we have. Thank you, Dr Choi. In conclusion, the collaboration between Hong Kong and ASEAN countries holds immense promise for mutual growth and prosperity, particularly through strategic partnerships within the Belt and Road Initiative, and as part of the GBA.

As our Chief Executive John Lee said, “We are all believers in ASEAN and its rising economy power and its expanding connectivity”. Have a good evening and see you next week!