Veteran SAR politician and businessman expects great opportunities after trip to APEC meeting

Bernard Charnwut Chan (first row, sixth from left), a member of the Hong Kong business delegation led by Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu (first row, eighth from left), during a meeting with Han Zhiqiang (first row, eighth from right), ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of the People’s Republic of China to the Kingdom of Thailand, in Bangkok on Sunday. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Hong Kong has huge opportunities as it adapts to the major changes that are reshaping the world, said Bernard Charnwut Chan, a member of Hong Kong’s delegation to the 29th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Bangkok, Thailand.

Almost all countries in the region are looking at the potential of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) market and thinking about how to develop the market through better collaboration between China and the ASEAN countries, Chan told China Daily during an interview in Bangkok. And Hong Kong, a multifunctional harbor, will have great opportunities arising from such collaborations, doing what it has always done best: acting as the middleman.

We’ve had many collaborations, such as on infrastructure. The next step will be human-to-human connectivity, which helps to ease tension because people can see the results of the initiative — a win for all.

Bernard Charnwut Chan, chairman of the Hong Kong-Thailand Business Council, during an exclusive interview with China Daily in Bangkok, Thailand on Sunday. 

“But to be a good middleman, you need to understand the needs of the other countries and what they are doing right. You cannot just sit there thinking that you can be the middleman when you don’t have any idea of what you’re connecting with,” he said. “That’s why communication is so important. You need to go there, to see and to learn.”

In recent years, Chan has been approached by many financial companies from the Chinese mainland, including insurance companies who want to expand into the ASEAN markets. “But many of them prefer to look for local partners due to the different cultures and needs. So now there are so many of these opportunities already under discussion,” he added.

On his recent trip to Bangkok for the 29th APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting, which concluded on Nov 19, Chan said he had been deeply impressed by something that President Xi Jinping had said — that China and Thailand are as close as one family.

The remark was made by Xi during a meeting with Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha at the APEC meeting. Xi had also emphasized that a more stable, prosperous and sustainable China-Thailand community with a shared future will chart the future direction of relations between the two countries.

Chan, a heavyweight of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region with several titles — including chairman and president of Asia Financial Holdings, chairman of Asia Insurance, and adviser to Bangkok Bank (China) — and a winner of the Grand Bauhinia Medal in 2020, the highest award under the Hong Kong honors and awards system, said he has deep Chinese family roots.

He was born in Hong Kong and gave up his Thai passport many years ago. He considers himself a product of the close relationship between Thailand and China.

“Look at my own experience. I agree with President Xi so much. Many Thais have Chinese roots. Some families are probably a Thai-Chinese mix. When Chinese come to Thailand, they will feel very comfortable because most of the Thai people here respect Chinese culture,” he said.

Another important factor, Chan believes, is that Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn is also well-respected in China. In 2019, the princess was presented with the Friendship Medal — the highest honor given by the Chinese government to foreigners.

Complementary economies

From a financial perspective, Chan said the markets of the two countries are attractive to each other, and this has helped boost even closer ties between Thailand and China, including with the HKSAR.

“China has a population that is sizeable enough for us not to ignore. It is a very good market. Thailand, on the other hand, enjoys a perfect position within the ASEAN market. So Chinese companies would choose Thailand as a base for its neighboring countries,” he explained.

Thailand also has many advantages that appeal to China, he said; for example, its agricultural products, such as the rice, rubber, and durians. There are also many good designers and artists in Thailand, which are treasures to explore.

Similarly, he said Thai people are interested in how they can use Hong Kong to access the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, which has a huge market and a population even larger than that of Thailand and Cambodia combined.

“Thailand and Hong Kong are both gateways to neighboring countries or regions. Thai people can also come to Hong Kong and partner with Hong Kong companies to access the Greater Bay Area market,” he added.

Culture is key

Apart from the combined achievements of the two countries over recent years — such as the China-Thailand High-Speed Railway and cooperation in a wide range of industries, including the automobile, electronics and machinery sectors — Chan said communication and cultural and arts exchanges should be further strengthened between Thailand and China, as the two are now stepping onto a new stage with a closer partnership.

Chan served as the board chairman of the Hong Kong Palace Museum from 2018 until August this year. He visited Beijing’s Palace Museum in the Forbidden City in order to arrange the borrowing of artifacts from Beijing for display in the Hong Kong Palace Museum, which opened in July this year.

A total of 914 artifacts are on loan from the Palace Museum’s collection, the largest number loaned out since the Beijing museum’s establishment in 1925. About 160 of the items are classified as national treasures.

Spanning nearly 5,000 years, the works on loan are rich and diverse, including paintings, calligraphy, bronzeware, ceramics, jade, metalwork, enamelware, lacquer, seals, costumes, textiles, jewelry, rare books and architecture.

“That was my first time to visit the Palace Museum in Beijing. I was just stunned. The architecture of the Forbidden City itself is so impressive. And the collections were an eye-opening exercise for me. I think culture is definitely the best way to connect people,” Chan said.

“The world is so divided these days, and we may disagree on a lot of things. But when you look at these thousands of years of treasures, you see not only Chinese arts, but also trade between the West and the East. It makes you start to think if civilization can last so long, then how?”

He found his own answer — through cultural exchanges.

“Sometimes we have disagreements, but culture and arts connect people and bridge those differences. Thanks to the exhibitions in the museums, no matter in Beijing, Hong Kong or Bangkok, people can come to see, to learn and appreciate each other,” Chan said.

Similar connections between the West and the East, as well as between the past and the future, had also been previously raised by Xi when discussing the Belt and Road Initiative. Chan said the concept is quite amazing because it connects all the dots.

Thousands of years ago, Chan said, China had trade routes with the outside world. This was how civilization developed and became prosperous. The BRI is basically a rebirth of such connections. And today, it goes beyond the trade.

“We’ve had many collaborations, such as on infrastructure. The next step will be human-to-human connectivity, which helps to ease tension because people can see the results of the initiative — a win for all,” Chan said.

In March 2022, Chan was appointed chairman of the board of M+ museum for a two-year term until 2024. M+ sits alongside the Hong Kong Palace Museum, and has become a major new attraction and cultural icon in the city.