Editor’s Note: This year marks the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to the country. Over the past quarter-century, with its diverse culture and privileged location, Hong Kong has enticed many foreigners to settle down and build careers. In the third part of China Daily’s “Anniversary Talks” series, we put the spotlight on them to record how Hong Kong has changed their lives and how they have contributed to the city’s development.

In this article, Chandran Nair, founder and CEO of the pan-Asia think thank Global Institute for Tomorrow, shared how the efficient Hong Kong, with “one country, two systems”, and its clear rules and close ties with the Chinese mainland, has helped a foreigner like him grow his business.

File photo of Chandran Nair, founder and CEO of the pan-Asia think thank Global Institute for Tomorrow.

1. Why did you come to Hong Kong? How did you overcome the challenges and become who you are today? What have you managed to achieve in Hong Kong so far?

I was headhunted to join an international environmental consulting firm which had one office in Asia, and that was in Hong Kong. There were not too many challenges except one: finding a business that is competitive and finding ways to differentiate and try to be the best. In that regard, the healthy nature of business competition taught me a lot of lessons, which have helped me expand business and work internationally. The opportunity provided in Hong Kong enabled me to grow what was and is widely regarded even today as the most successful environmental consulting firm in Asia. When I decided to leave consulting, Hong Kong provided the perfect platform to create an independent Pan-Asian think tank, given its proximity to the rapidly changing situation in the country and of course the rest of Asia and the world. The ability to attract good staff and talk/write about the global issues affecting the region and the world from an Asian perspective in an open and free environment was critical. It enables the institute to do important work and get recognition as the leading independent think tank in the region with a unique business model as we do not take funding from donors.

2.  Could you share with us your memories about Hong Kong’s return to the country? How do you and the expatriate community here see the city’s return to the country and “one country, two systems”? Has “one country, two systems” had any impact on their way of life and work in Hong Kong?

I was lucky enough to be invited to attend a few of the events organized for the day of the handover. I remember very clearly the noon event in Tamar, which was conducted as a torrential rainstorm hit Hong Kong and almost everyone was drenched despite our umbrellas. I was involved in a forum hosted on the royal boat later that day where the Prince of Wales (Prince Charles) invited a couple of hundred business leaders from around the world to address environmental issues. As the Asia-Pacific adviser to the forum, I had the privilege of presenting to the business leaders the findings of a report I prepared on the state of the environment in Asia. No one at that time expected the political environment to change over the years and thus most people looked forward to the future despite some media reports suggesting otherwise. I see “one country, two systems” as having worked well for people like me and providing a sound framework for stability.

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3.  Since 1997, Hong Kong has seen a growing number of foreigners living and working in the city. The SAR remains one of the most attractive places for talents from all over the world. What is it about Hong Kong that has kept people coming here? What would you say is crucial to attracting talents to Hong Kong from around the world?

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region has attracted many to work here mainly because it is a place where one can work efficiently. It has a very efficient business environment. There is money to be made for those who see that as a priority, where the rules are clear and most importantly, close to the big story of the 21st century: the rise of China. That is not to say it is a perfect place and there is much work to be done to address the all-important issue of economic and social inequality, the most pressing challenge going forward.

4.  The central government, under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, has attached great importance to Hong Kong, helping the city recover from the 2019 social unrest and the COVID-19 pandemic. Why do you think the central government is attaching such great importance to Hong Kong? What role has the central government’s assistance played in the SAR’s efforts to overcome these daunting challenges?

In my view, and it is no secret, if the SAR fails, then those who are opposed to China’s rise will seize on it to further the confrontation with China and to demonize it. Thus it is only natural that the sovereign state will make all efforts to ensure this does not happen. Other reasons of course include the fact that the Hong Kong SAR still plays the crucial role of a gateway to China and particularly in relation to its function as an international financial hub. But this should not be taken for granted or overstated. The central government has over the years done many things to ensure Hong Kong is integrated. I think the most important one now is the creation of the (Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao) Greater Bay Area, and it is hoped that Hong Kong seizes the opportunity, which if it does, will rewrite the history of Hong Kong’s success to date.

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5.  The central government has introduced a string of favorable policies for Hong Kong since the city’s return to the country. Some of these policies are to help locals and some are to facilitate Hong Kong residents studying, living and working on the Chinese mainland. What do you think of the far-reaching impact these policies have on Hong Kong and its people? Have you and your profession or industry benefited too?

These policies are very useful. The key now is to leverage these policies and encourage as well as nudge young people of the Hong Kong SAR to go and experience the real Chinese mainland — travel, study, work — so they can understand the scale of the country, the challenges it faces, the nature of the political economy, and how they can be part of what will inevitability be the biggest story for the next half a century. We have benefited in many ways, but one is the opportunity to work with mainland organizations to allow young people and professionals from the Hong Kong SAR and the rest of the world to understand China better. The openness of China to these people is something else that should be used to promote understanding and peace.

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6.  This year, Hong Kong celebrates the 25th anniversary of the handover, and is also the halfway mark in implementing 50 years of “one country, two systems”. What about the next 25 years? Some people think that the policy will change after 50 years. How about you?

Trying to predict how policies may evolve in a time of unprecedented geopolitical tensions is a risky business. The key is to learn from the lesson of the last 25 years. Based on that, it is critical that under the “one country, two systems” arrangement, the HKSAR government works closely with the central government to make life better for the less-privileged in this rich city. It is thus incumbent of the HKSAR government to relay all the concerns of the Hong Kong people to the central government and find solutions rather than second-guess. They have to have the trust of the majority of the local people, especially the young, and that in turn will help the central government make the right decisions as needed to assist Hong Kong and inevitably forge a society that thrives in whatever form or shape “one country, two systems” evolves into.