Uniting People of Same Interest and Passion for Change to Happen by Bibo Chui

Speaking of Mr John Tsang Chun-wah, he is on one hand the most-remembered former Financial Secretary of Hong Kong who has served in the position for 10 years; On the other hand, he has been going by a known-to-each-household nickname, “薯片叔叔”, which has gained him rare popularity as a government official. On April 6 2023, we were very honoured to have invited John for a private dinner to unveil his story as the longest-serving financial secretary of Hong Kong and his post-government endeavours for society.

Leading Hong Kong through Global Financial Crisis: Is Cash Really the King?

In 2008, the financial crisis swept the globe and left banks and citizens with worthless investments. Fortunately, Hong Kong remained safe and sound during the crisis. As the Financial Secretary of the time, John has shared the story of how he led Hong Kong to survive the financial tsunami. About a week before the bubble burst, he had observed some abnormal money flow and he had hence asked the banks to hold more cash reserves. His spot-on action has further attested to the importance of his habit of planning ahead. As the former gatekeeper of the finance of Hong Kong, he admits that he is not much of a risk taker and he concurs with the significance of holding cash for risk mitigation. During his term, he proudly kept the cash reserve of Hong Kong at an amount which is sufficient for 2.5 years without income. John has stressed the necessity for every individual to understand finance as it could be of essential use ranging from paying taxes to managing personal finance.  

“AI will not take away your jobs, those who know AI will”

While technology becomes a global trend that is drastically altering consumers’ needs as well as the demand in the labour market, many have raised concerns over whether Artificial Intelligence(AI) will replace humans in the workplace. John believes that we should not refrain from embracing technology. Instead, society ought to leverage the advancement of technology to improve our quality of life. “AI will not take away your jobs, those who know AI will”, John firmly reiterated his point. To retain one’s competitiveness in the evolving market, John encouraged youths to equip themselves with technological skills. When asked whether technological acceleration would widen the gap between the rich and the poor due to the inequality in access to technology, John saw the vice versa – he supported his stance with the example of One Laptop Per Child, a project that aims to offer children access to education by giving every child a laptop, especially in developing regions.

The way out of Hong Kong

On top of all, John is convinced that education is the key to change. He was brutally honest about today’s education - “using the method from the 19th century and teachers from the 20th century to teach students from the 21st century”. Whereas many have as well criticized the education system in Hong Kong, what should youth do to play a part in promoting a change in society? Esperanza, founded by John himself, has exemplified his faith in uniting people of the same interest and passion in order for a change to happen. In view of the recent outflow of talent and the HKD-USD peg, John did not take both as problems to be worried about. He sees the biggest challenge for Hong Kong is remaining its competitive edge.

Takeaway from the 35-year civil servant life

As many may be curious, how is John so popular among both the pan-democrats and the pro-establishment supporters? As one of the heads of the government, John still thinks that he always had the room to do what’s right as he highlighted the “elbow room”, which means that one could still stretch his elbow even if one is restricted. John responded that he believes in democracy in its pure sense. However, there is no true democracy practised in reality. As expected, governance is never a simple question. The most effective and efficient political ideology is still yet to be explored or even imagined. Being a technology enthusiast, John creatively raised a technology-inspired idea of distributed leadership. As web3 has enabled decentralization, who knows if leadership could be decentralized one day?

Just smell the roses along the way

It has been a common myth that working in the government is boring. Interestingly, John had switched to becoming part of the government out of excitement. He said the rotation of roles along the promotion has given him diversified opportunities in many fields. John bluntly said that he carried no life motto or philosophy as one’s perspectives may change as one grows up and earned new encounters. John was no joke when he said he just “smells roses along the way”. He had spent 20 years in the USA before he returned to Hong Kong. He was an architect before returning and he had never worked in any financial field. Given the opportunity of working as the principal for an international school, John has chosen to join the Hong Kong government and this was when the seeds of his story as our former Financial Secretary were sowed.

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