People wearing masks walk through the Hong Kong business district of Central on February 19. Given their wealth, resources and organisational heft, conglomerates in Hong Kong ought to be doing much more to contribute to bettering the coronavirus situation. Photo: AP
Francis Neoton Cheung
Francis Neoton Cheung

Big business is stepping up where the Hong Kong government has fallen short in the coronavirus fight, but it can do more

  • Donations of money and supplies have rushed in even as company managers rally round to make new work arrangements to contain the virus spread
  • But more is rightly expected of these conglomerates. They could learn from mainland companies that have harnessed their strengths to answer on-the-ground needs
The Hong Kong government has stumbled from one crisis to another, and its handling of the coronavirus public health emergency has laid bare the incompetence, insensitivity and lack of preparedness of those who, in theory, lead what they boast to be “Asia’s world city”. 
With public trust in the Carrie Lam administration hollowed out following months of bruising anti-government protests in 2019, there has been a considerable display of resourcefulness, resilience and solidarity among the public to counteract the pall of gloom.
Small-scale shops and members of civil society have been resourceful in sourcing face mask supplies from all corners of the globe. Less prominently, major businesses in Hong Kong have also contributed to the crisis response.
As the government wasted the entire Lunar New Year weekend dithering over border entry controls and face mask supplies, I was encouraged to see that New World Development was among the first to act, spending HK$10 million (US$1.3 million) on face masks, hand sanitisers and disinfectant wipes for working-class members of the community and its own staff.
Mindful of the palpable risk of a community outbreak of the coronavirus, the developer then announced that staff who could work from home should do so, one day before the government made a similar arrangement for civil servants. The company also took the lead within the property industry in shutting down all its construction sites for two weeks as infection figures rose.
Other developers have followed suit. Wharf Holdings, Swire Group, Hang Lung Properties and Henderson Land have each donated HK$11 million to fight the outbreak. The Li Ka Shing Foundation also donated HK$100 million to the cause, as well as 250,000 masks to the needy and safety gear to public hospitals. Sun Hung Kai Properties, meanwhile, donated 320,000 masks to the Hospital Authority and NGOs.
In addition, Henderson, Sun Hung Kai and New World have cut shopping mall rents after financial secretary Paul Chan Mo-po asked property owners to “fulfil their social responsibilities” to support businesses and prevent job losses.

While the series of corporate moves is shaping up to be a collective relief campaign against the coronavirus, the cash and material handouts are perhaps expected, if not formulaic.

The most direct, if not philanthropic, response from a local businessman is perhaps Ricky Wong Wai-kay’s purchase of a face-mask-making machine from Taiwan for his HKTV mall e-commerce business.

Similarly, Executive Council member Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung is working with the business sector to set up an automated production line that could make 100,000 masks a day as soon as mid-March. While these practical moves are no doubt welcome, they are still on the drawing board and do not answer the most immediate needs.

Given their wealth, resources and organisational heft, conglomerates in Hong Kong ought to be doing much more to contribute to bettering the situation. A look at how major mainland companies have been harnessing their core capabilities to support the emergency response provides reference for innovative corporate action.

Alibaba (which owns the South China Morning Post) has been pushing a range of practical solutions that are drawn from the heart of its business.

For instance, the tech giant’s logistics network Cainiao has teamed up with industry partners to launch a global channel to expedite the delivery of medical aid donations, while the Alibaba Global Direct Sourcing Platform matches sellers of medical supplies and their products with the needs of affected hospitals and local authorities.
Alibaba Health, as well as Ping An Good Doctor, are making their online services free of charge to those with minor illness, to help relieve pressure on the provincial health system, while the insurance platform of Alipay is helping affected medical staff to apply for funds for treatment.

These examples demonstrate how companies deftly turn to their competitive advantages to answer specific, on-the-ground needs.

While major Hong Kong companies have generally limited themselves to provding cash or in-kind donations of practical items and also rental relief, they will also come to be judged on how they have managed the soft side of their coronavirus crisis response.

With “work from home” turning into a mass exercise this month, companies have to keep up the morale, interactions and productivity of their staff, while maintaining regular and frequent contact with everyone to show that a caring management is in control in these challenging times.

For many firms, this unprecedented period of remote working is also a litmus test of their IT capabilities. Workers who have to work in physical offices, as well as public-facing staff of businesses, also expect to be amply supplied with personal protective items and see health and safety systems in place to mitigate the virus entering their workplaces. Strong employee communications and engagement can help assuage the worries brought on by the public health crisis.

Businesses have a critical role to play alongside the government and civil society in responding to the coronavirus outbreak. And with top developers in Hong Kong now led by second- or even third-generation heirs of the respective founders, this is a prime opportunity for young, ambitious tycoons to chart new paths and make their businesses a more innovative part of the solution to the crisis.

Francis Neoton Cheung is the convenor of Doctoral Exchange, a public policy research collective, and a former member of the Land and Building Advisory Committee

David Dodwell is on holiday