Hong Kong must grasp the chance to reinvent itself as the financial hub for Beijing’s ‘one belt, one road’ Eurasia initiative because its role as China’s superconnector will soon be redundant, said the recently retired Alexa Lam.
The former deputy CEO of Hong Kong’s Securities and Futures Commission (SFC) told AsianInvestor’s recent Women in Asset Management forum that it was time for the city to think about its future and find a new niche for itself.
“There will come a time, and it is probably now, that China is ready and able to connect with the rest of the world herself instead of just using Hong Kong,” she said. “China is the world’s second-largest economy and has aspirations to be great. One Hong Kong is not going to be enough for the China market."
Lam highlighted how Shanghai was working to become an offshore centre via its free-trade zone (FTZ), able to deliver many of the things that had previously been the preserve of Hong Kong, while China was also setting up more FTZs.
Further, she voiced expectations that Shanghai (and Shenzhen) would soon have Stock Connect schemes not just with Hong Kong, but with many cities around the world, naming New York, London and Singapore.
But she stressed that Hong Kong could harness its strengths and play a superconnector role in the ‘one belt, one road’ project, introduced by Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2013 and reiterated at the Boao Forum this March.
Inspired by the ancient Silk Road, the project is designed to improve regional connectivity between China and primarily Eurasia by linking infrastructure, finance and telecommunications and removing trade barriers along the route.
Lam noted that ‘one belt, one road’ covered about 70 countries and would be hugely challenging, taking variances in politics, history and culture into account.
Yet she expressed confidence that Hong Kong shared a commonality that it could use to its advantage to act as the hub, given its capabilities in English combined with rule of law and practices established under British colonial rule.
“If we harness these things, which is what Hong Kong has always been about, we can probably find a new niche for ourselves, which would be very exciting,” she added.
“Hong Kong’s strength is being completely open and international. So this is almost like a role that has been crafted for us. From the noises I have heard, Hong Kong is very eager to grab this opportunity.”
Lam was speaking during a lunchtime Q&A with FinanceAsia editor Alison Tudor-Ackroyd at the forum, which was designed to promote gender equality.
Asked whether asset management as an industry was more conducive to nurturing female talent, Lam suggested that itself was a stereotype. “What we need not to do is to pigeonhole ourselves,” she stated.
“I think the time has come for us not to follow what happened in the generation before us. We should look at ourselves as people, not as men and women.”
She admitted she went through “a lot of agonising moments” as a working mother of two sons, saying she tried to get home by 8pm to have dinner with them before putting them to bed and then continuing to work.
But she spoke with optimism about what she sees as a generational shift in attitudes among children today who grew up with mothers working.
“Their view of women should be different from my generation, so that when they deal with women in the workplace, whether as peers, subordinates or bosses, they should not be looking at this relationship through the prism of male or female, but just as colleagues.”
Asked what cultural differences she had encountered in terms of the acceptance of women in finance during a career that has spanned Chicago, New York and Hong Kong, she said her home city was more open than many major markets.
“I started working in the US in 1982, which granted was a long time ago,” she recalled. “I was told I had to wear a suit and the suit had to be dark, in other words behave like a man and dress like a man.
“I always like to dress in colourful clothes and today is a lot better, especially in the financial services space. The fact is, Hong Kong is very open and accepting.”