Law & More: The Boase Cohen & Collins Podcast

Episode 21 - Christine Loh

December 05, 2022 Niall Episode 21
Law & More: The Boase Cohen & Collins Podcast
Episode 21 - Christine Loh
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, we are delighted to welcome one of Hong Kong’s best-known public figures, Christine Loh. In her diverse and distinguished career, Christine has been a Legislative Councillor, academic, environmental campaigner, government minister, commodities trader and author. She speaks with our Senior Partner Colin Cohen. 

Host: Colin Cohen
Director: Niall Donnelly
Producer and VO: Thomas Latter       

[00:00:34] Colin Cohen: Christine, welcome to Law & More. We know that you're very active in many areas of the public. But first of all, I always ask all my guests this, what's keeping you busy recently?

[00:00:44] Christine Loh: Well, I'm with the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and we are about to present Hong Kong's, major climate change conference after COP 27 in early December. And I believe in direct marketing rather than just blast emails out to people and expect people to read them and come. So I've been really busy.

[00:01:06] Colin Cohen: Great. And that's very interesting because for our listeners, COP 27. It is 27th session of a conference of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. But everyone calls it COP 27, whereby right now they're in Egypt and all the politicians are making up their matters. What's your views on all of it? Have you been following it carefully?

[00:01:30] Christine Loh: Yeah, I have. I went to my first COP, I went to COP 13 which was in Bali. I was running a think tank at the time together with a think tank in Singapore. I think we were the first people in Asia to publish a paper on what Asia could contribute. What were the issues in Asia. So I've been interested in COP all this time. I think when you're dealing with big issues that concerns the whole world, you need multilateral dialogue, even when the dialogue is not always very efficient or effective.

[00:02:03] Colin Cohen: We'll come back to it a little bit later, but I wanna go back in time a little bit. Because your career has been diverse, distinguished, interesting. Let's go back to the early years. A little bit about your history here in Hong Kong, your upbringing as well a little bit. 

[00:02:17] Christine Loh: Well, I was born in Hong Kong. My father, came from Shanghai. My mother is a long time Hong Kong Cantonese family. I was a product of one. And my parents, I think amongst Chinese parents, they were the first to separate and divorce. And both my parents remarried. My father then moved to the United States and my mother married a Danish gentleman. So I was brought up by a Danish gentleman.

So when I referred to my parents mostly I'm referring to my mother and my stepfather. So I grew up in what I think we could call Hong Kong's emigrate society. Because when I was young, like in the sixties mixed marriages, yes they were around, but they were not as prevalent as they are today.

But my heritage is also Shanghainese. I did have my father's family. So I'm really a mix bag and my parents decided also to export me to the UK to go to school at one time. So I guess I'm culturally Hong Kong, culturally, a bit of Shanghai, bit of Canton, and a bit of the UK.

[00:03:27] Colin Cohen: It's interesting, you also went to school here in Hong Kong and school in the UK and you went to University of Hull and you decided to study law. What took you down the path of studying law?

[00:03:40] Christine Loh: Well, I was one of those young people who really didn't want to study very much, and I took a year off because I really didn't know what to do. I was lucky enough to be an intern at Johnson, Stokes and Masters. And you might remember an old time lawyer, Peter Thompson, who was a maritime, a shipping lawyer. And he was very keen at the time that I might become a lawyer. Although I was an intern, I really didn't know what I wanted to do.

But he said, you should really go to University because it was still a time when you can do five years of articles and become a solicitor. But he said it would be good if you went to University. So he said oh, I know a professor at the University of Hull and why don't you go there?

And that was really how I got there.

[00:04:23] Colin Cohen: Yes, outta interest. My partner, Usha Casewell, she also went to Hull. Enjoyed the life there? 

[00:04:29] Christine Loh: Was a part of England I hadn't seen before. I was actually talking to someone yesterday who comes from York, and he laughed and he said, Oh, you spent a few years of your life in all.

And I said, Oh yes, I went to Hull. It left a deep memory. And I'm still in touch with the University. I was just in touch with the new vice chancellor that they had a week ago. So, it's just one of those things, and much of it has to do with Peter Thompson because he went to Hull and he also maintained a long-term relationship with the University.

[00:05:00] Colin Cohen: But you'd studied law, but then you decided not to go into the profession. Why?

[00:05:05] Christine Loh: Decided for me by fate. I really thought I would become a lawyer and I actually had an article job waiting for me in the UK. But at the time I was very attracted by China opening up and I thought, well, my mother and my stepfather were living in Hong Kong, so I should go back to Hong Kong and really brush up my Chinese, my Mandarin.

This was actually my most brilliant idea at the time, which was to specialise in Chinese law as China was opening up. Really brilliant idea, it didn't happen, of course. But when I came back to Hong Kong and I had dinner one night at my parent's house. I was rediscovered by our next door neighbour who last met me when I was 10 years old.

And he said, Oh, what are you doing? And I said, Well, I'm a young lawyer and I'm brushing up on my Chinese. And he offered me a job straightaway to go to Beijing because he was working for an American company that I'd never heard of, but they just got a license to open a representative office in Beijing.

And historically this is significant because this was the first overseas company, foreign company to get such a license, but they couldn't hire anyone. No one wanted to go from overseas, couldn't hire anyone from Hong Kong. And he looked at me and he says, You speak some Mandarin right? And I said, Well, not very well, but I'm trying to learn.

So he said, Would you like to go? And he offered me what was at the time, a huge sum of money. All expenses paid if I would go. So I went.

[00:06:34] Colin Cohen: What year was that?

[00:06:35] Christine Loh: 1979. And I left Hong Kong on the 2nd of January, 1980 to go up to Beijing to do something for a company I'd never heard of. Of a business that I didn't really understand. They were in physical commodities trading, but I couldn't spell commodities. So there I was, keen as a button. I was doing something that none of my peers were doing. It was very uncool for a lot of people to go to Beijing, what are you doing there? But for me, I thought it was really cool.

[00:07:03] Colin Cohen: It's a great similarity because I came to Hong Kong in 81 and one of the reasons I went to Hong Kong was, I had a job of Herbert Smith in London. And this firm offered me four times as much money than Herbert Smith were gonna offer me in London. I thought I'll come out to Hong Kong, think I'll be here two years, been here ever since. 

[00:07:20] Christine Loh: It wasn't even the money, but he did offer me a lot of money that I didn't have at the time, but it really was going to Beijing. No one else that I knew were doing anything like that.

[00:07:29] Colin Cohen: Did you enjoy Beijing? Cause I went there in 82 and I remember Beijing in 82 being very interesting.

[00:07:34] Christine Loh: I loved it. It was just the most magical experience because I knew nothing. This was like a completely new world, and it was there that really changed my life. I started taking an interest in China.

[00:07:47] Colin Cohen: And how long were you there for?

[00:07:48] Christine Loh: I was there for like eight months. And I was supposed to go back to the UK, but this was a short term assignment just to help them to open up an office, just have somebody on the ground to run around and mail letters and things like that.

Because I obviously didn't know anything about commodities. But they offered me a job. They said, Well, maybe you'd like to learn then how to do commodities rather than just be Girl Friday. So I took that up. 

[00:08:11] Colin Cohen: Then you came back to Hong Kong. What did you do there in Hong Kong?

[00:08:14] Christine Loh: Well, I said that I didn't think I want to be permanently stationed in Beijing because then I'd become a China hand and not a commodities trader.

So I wanted to be a commodity trader. So they said, Okay you can live in Hong Kong, work in Hong Kong, but travel to China a lot. Right? So that, that was great. So for 10 years, I did a lot oftravelling up and down to China.

[00:08:36] Colin Cohen: And sort of around that time you joined Friends of the Earth. That started you on your environmental awareness journey. Tell us a little bit more what got you into that interesting area.

[00:08:45] Christine Loh: Well, I think two other people, and for people who are familiar with the legal world, you will remember Henry Litton, and you will remember, Linda Siddle. And I knew them, they were acquaintances. And one day I remember this so clearly, I was walking down Ice House Street and Linda was walking towards me. And I said, Hello Linda. And she says, Oh hi Christine, what have you been doing? And I said, I read somewhere, Linda, that you kind of started some NGO called Friends of the Earth.

And she says, Are you interested, Christine? And I said, I don't know if I am, because at the time there was these various magazines, Time, Newsweek and so on that had written articles about global warming, about deforestation. And because I wastravelling a lot, I read them. So I said, Linda, if half of what I read is true, we are screwed, right. And before I knew it, she got me on the Board of Friends of the Earth. And then before I knew it again, she made me Chairman of the Friends of the Earth. So from then, 1985, I started to learn about the environment.

[00:09:47] Colin Cohen: And you became an activist a little bit on the environment. Would you describe yourself as that?

[00:09:52] Christine Loh: Well, I was with Friends of the Earth and Linda excused my language, she was a bit kick ass, right? On what she wanted to do. And I think she was absolutely right. So I learned from her. I started to do some reading and so on for myself. And that was also a time that we dealt with the Hong Kong government who started to take an interest in setting up an environmental unit.

So I was able to look at Environmental policy. And I thought Linda was a very good teacher for me because she comes from the perspective of policy and law rather than just rebel rousing as what you didn't like. So that was great learning experience for me.

[00:10:30] Colin Cohen: You then became active in politics, and this was a time when Chris Patton came to Hong Kong, the last Governor. And you found your way into the politics. How did that happen?

[00:10:41] Christine Loh: Actually, it wasn't because of my environmental activism. It was because of another bunch of people, and again, more lawyers there. Anna Woo you will remember.

But in those days, even earlier than Friends of the Earth. In 1980, I joined Anna in a group of her friends then in something called Hong Kong Observers, and they wrote op-eds in the South China Morning Post and in Ming Pau talking about Hong Kong issues. And I was the youngest member and they said, Well, you have a bit more time than we do. Can you start drafting some articles, some of the op-eds. And that again, was how I learned about public affairs. 

Just go forward very quickly to 1992. When Chris Patton came to Hong Kong the British government clearly had a position they wanted to nominate a few people on the legislature that would, I guess, be supportive of some of the more democratic policies that they wanted to push forward.

So Anna, myself and another young man Roger Luk, at the time, we were the new appointed legislator in 1992.

[00:11:44] Colin Cohen: Did you enjoy LegCo at that time? 

[00:11:46] Christine Loh: I did, it was just amazing. I thought, my God, I'm sitting here. I don't know more than half of what's going on because you're having to deal with issues that were clearly important.

I remember we dealt with pensions. One of the things that Chris Patton proposed on the table, I think it was in 1993, was whether Hong Kong should have an old age pension. And I knew nothing about the pension. I'd never thought about pensions, and I listened to the debate between James, representing industry and another legislator representing labour and one wanted it and one didn't want it.

You can figure out who wanted it, who didn't want it. But the labour representative said it wasn't good enough. So nothing actually happened. Chris Patton decided, Okay, neither of you want it, I'll take it off the table because we are now talking about the transition to Chinese rule.

So I remembered that so clearly and I thought, you've gotta be kidding.

Such an important issue taken off the table from beginning to end in like four months. So I always felt that we were not prepared for having these very important discussions.

[00:12:47] Colin Cohen: And at that stage, I mean in the politics, the sort of big elephant in the room, you were part of a democratic camp. I mean, using the word in a nice way, and you were also less confrontational and more pragmatic. I heard you described at one stage as a reasonable radical. Is that a good description? Is it fair assessment?

[00:13:08] Christine Loh: Well, I wanted something that Hong Kong government wasn't prepared for at the time. Yes, we wanted more democracy. We wanted one person, one vote. There was a group of us in Legco but to be honest, that was another time. I think today the politics, for example of 2019 was much more aggressive. Whereas in our days we did debate issue and the knife came out in the civility of the words we used.

We couldn't conceive of ourselves climbing on tables and being much more aggressive about our views. It was still a very gentle time in politics. And we did get certain things done, but it had an imprint on me about policies, the important of knowing what to do in terms of having specific solutions and not just complaining about what we didn't like. 

[00:13:59] Colin Cohen: And in 2000, you decided not to stand for re-election, and you set up a non-profit public policy think tank, well known civic exchange. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

[00:14:11] Christine Loh: Well, I mean, precisely. I felt that even though I had been in Legco for nearly 10 years, there was so much that I didn't know. And I think many of my colleagues were not always prepared to really dig in many issues that we were asked to vote on. And in those days it was just the very beginning of party politics. So when I first got into Legco in 1992, there wasn't really even a faction that I could follow and, vote with the crowd, so to speak.

I felt it was really hard work to try and think through all the things that we had to deal with. So the idea of forming a public policy think tank was to take up a number of policy issues, do the research, offer it to people interested in politics, and I thought that it's very important to lay out the facts. The conclusions could be different, but could we first agree on what the facts are?

[00:15:02] Colin Cohen: Actually, I think nowadays, think tanks are a buzzword and everybody's setting up this think tank, that think tank. But you were generating it all at the very early stages. 

[00:15:11] Christine Loh: I was rather serious about it. And many friends said to me, do you think anybody's gonna give you any money to do that? Right. Who's gonna give you money to do that? But we did manage to raise modest sum of money, and we did manage to have a methodology of working with experts, working with people at the universities and other professionals. To think through certain policy issues. And I think we can be judged by the quality of our work.

[00:15:36] Colin Cohen: And you also become an author. Being here shaping a preferred future. Enjoy writing that or not really?

[00:15:44] Christine Loh: Well, actually I never thought this would happen because I was a rather lazy student and, I didn't particularly think about writing. When I was a commodities trader, I wrote memos. I didn't really write extensively. But when I started Civic exchange, I also thought that we'll raise money and team up with other people and that they would write. But I ended up doing quite a lot of writing and if you ask me today, Oh well Christine, how many books have you written or co-written?

Well, I think we're probably up to about a dozen and I've just handed in the manuscript for a new book, which will come out in February on the sort of policy reflection of Covid 19 for Hong Kong U Press. So, I mean, this is like a complete surprise for me.

[00:16:25] Colin Cohen: Well moving on a little bit, back to public policy. You were always part of these think tanks. You were a thinker, you were a person who would speak your mind and then CY Leung's government, they come along. And in 2012 you're appointed Under-Secretary for Environment. Was that a surprise?

[00:16:43] Christine Loh: Oh, complete surprise. I remember I was sitting, I think it was in the Philippines somewhere with my family, the phone rang and it was CY and he had just been elected like two days ago. And he said, Hello Christine, he says, it's CY. He said, I won the election, would you come into government and help me with the environment. 

So I was completely blown over. And we got together and CY at one time was a member of Hong Kong observers. That's how we know each other. So it's well known. Our political views are not the same. But he did say to me, look I know you really care about the environment.

I really need help there. Can you come into government? And I just asked him one question as I see why we know each other very well. I'm going to be a real bitch. If you don't let me do anything, right? So, do you really want something done? And he said, I really do.

And he never broke his promise. We actually did a number of major things. 

[00:17:32] Colin Cohen: Highlight them for us. What would you identify as the real things that you were able to do?

[00:17:37] Christine Loh: Well, I think a number of things that I really helped to generate where I had an impact. The first one was, and I told them, I'm actually working on a project at Civic Exchange for the major ships, these large container vessels and other large vessels that come into Hong Kong. Because they pollute so much that when they berth in Hong Kong, I want them to switch to using a cleaner fuel, which is what they're doing now in North America and in Northern Europe.

And he said, Okay, you can run with it. So we were able to do that.

When he said we could work on it. I also went to Beijing to speak to the vice minister at the time, and he hadn't quite heard of this particular idea, but I showed him research that we did in Hong Kong and in a way that broke through. We worked with the Ministry of Transport in Guangdong, and by 2015, that's only two years later, China changed her entire policy.

So Hong Kong lit the fire. But what China could do was take an idea and really take it nationwide. So, if CY had said no, I don't wanna do that, I couldn't have done it. And the other one was banning ivory. If he had said, Oh, I don't want to do it. And there were some people in government who were not entirely sure whether it could be done. But I said, It could be done, we can do it. And he said, Okay, go with it.

[00:18:54] Colin Cohen: It's very important because the banning of ivory has really worked and I think nowaday people are so much more conscious about, You guys don't have your ivory here anymore. 

[00:19:02] Christine Loh: That's right. I mean, it took a number of years, but if CY had said at that one meeting with other government officials that he agreed with some of them that the negative side, overweigh the positive side, I couldn't have done it.

[00:19:15] Colin Cohen: And did you enjoy government?

[00:19:17] Christine Loh: Sometimes yes, and sometimes no. It is a huge bureaucracy, but we did get something done. So I think my enjoyment comes from looking back and saying, okay, what did we do? Did we do something positive? 

[00:19:29] Colin Cohen: You were there for five years and then the new regime comes in afterwards. You left? Would you want to have stayed or...

[00:19:36] Christine Loh: I had to leave because I have a teenage daughter. And the environmental problems unfortunately, will remain whether I was there or not. But my daughter would've grown up if I didn't spend time with her. 

[00:19:48] Colin Cohen: Well that's very, very, very important. So you left government and you were involved in the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Can you tell a little bit more about that?

[00:19:58] Christine Loh: Well, I did two things. One is I was visiting professor to the University of California at Los Angeles for five years. Where I taught one semester in the year. So that was fun, and the rest of the year I was attached to the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

I'm very fortunate to be with them. I get a chance to look at the science and the engineering, and now we are increasingly working together with the business school. My job is kind of like the glue to try and glue people together, projects together, bringing what we do at University to business and to government and, government ideas.

How can we support government in some of the things that they're doing? So my job is kind of multidimensional, just the kind of thing I like.

[00:20:44] Colin Cohen: You're prolific writer, you go to conferences, you're a columnist. China Daily, SCMP, what do you write about most now? 

[00:20:52] Christine Loh: I guess two subjects. The environment is hot right now, right? Because, everybody is kind of going on about green finance and ESG because the financial sector is interested in the environment. The environment is taking a leap forward. So when people want to talk about these issues, I'm there, want to be there to help, but I don't wanna build anything for myself.

I think I've passed that stage. So what I want to do is really help certain causes, help institutions, help other people whose work and effort that I want to support. And writing is, I guess when I have something to say,

[00:21:26] Colin Cohen: Do write a lot about China, the environmental issues, these topics are very dear to your heart and everyone else's heart.

But how you able to enhance those to persuade people in China to embark upon these matters? Everything is closed, the border is closed now. Is that restricting you, not being able to go there?

[00:21:43] Christine Loh: Well, I haven't been for three years. When China is open without quarantine, I will hot foot there for sure. I first started going to China in 1980 and I was stationed my first job in Beijing. So I'm lucky to have had a very long view about China's development since the early 1980s. And I do have faith in the development in China, and it was not pretty when China was developing very quickly and the environment was ruined. But I also saw and have friends, in the Chinese system who felt exactly the same and who wanted to turn things around. So I do have another network of people at different generations, older and younger, who are committed to the environment and I want very much to be a part of that to help to clean up.

[00:22:29] Colin Cohen: I've been here a very long time, my 42 years, and it's my home, it's my place. And yet the recent tensions even before 2019, we call it the troubles and all the rest. A lot of people have left Hong Kong, for their own reasons as well. How do you see Hong Kong positioning ourselves with China in the near future?

[00:22:49] Christine Loh: Well, I kind of see what is happening to us in Hong Kong as part of a much bigger picture. It is a geopolitical shift. China has done well in the last 40 years, and it is seen as a threat to, if I could say, the G7 countries and a few others.

I grew up at a time when everything good, things that we should follow and pursue came from essentially the United States. And that was the system to emulate. Including my Shanghai father who thought that emigrating to the US bringing up his second family in the US was what should happen.

Because that's where the greatest opportunities were. That's how many, many people felt. But today I think Asia has matured, not just China, but the rest of Asia. And it is a different world. And I feel that whilst I obviously have a very Western upbringing, there are some DNA issues going on in terms of being Asian, being Chinese, trying to reconcile with that.

I'd spent time exploring my own identities and what was happening to me in terms of my life. But now that I'm in my sixties, having lived for a little while and having watched all of these issues, I feel we are at a very special time where for people like us a bit older, we are seeing a transformation of dual politics, of relative influence in the world shifting like never before. So I just want to be one of the better angels.

[00:24:17] Colin Cohen: And I agree with you entirely, because the world we're living in is just changing so quickly, and with the covid and thetravelling. What message would you give to achieve that?

[00:24:26] Christine Loh: Well, I mean, keep calm and carry on, right. They understand that. Yeah. Secondly is, when things you can't control, like suddenly there's a war right? In Europe or suddenly because of Covid, Asians in certain societies are discriminated against. I mean, all these things are rather frightening.

I would say to people in Hong Kong, stay here. This is still a safe society. Take your time, don't make judgment too soon. I think if there's anything, that's one thing that I've learned because as you go year by year, you think, Oh, what I thought then, things happen and then you look back and you say, Oh, well it wasn't quite like that way. More things had come out or things didn't develop that way.

And I thought, well, actually I better not make up my mind too soon about many things. So I just want to watch and wait, but always call for dialogue, Call for peace and try and be a better angel.

[00:25:19] Colin Cohen: I think it's very, very interesting. Now, finally, COP 27, you are there let's say right now. If you are getting up on the podium, your few words, what would you be saying to people if you were a speaker?

[00:25:31] Christine Loh: I would actually go with the title of COP, which I think is so important. The title of this COP is about implementation. So despite, all other troubles going on in the World War and Inflation and so on. If people really believe that climate change is a big global crisis, which I think the people at COP do, then don't take your eye off the ball.

It's not just good enough to say, Here's my timeline and my target, is far away. I mean, I'll be dead by 2050, right? But even knowing that. You've gotta do something, you've gotta lay out a plan. You've gotta get on that plan implementation, which is what COP is about this year.

[00:26:09] Colin Cohen: Christine, thank you so much. It's been a privilege and an honour to have you on Law & More. Thank you. 

[00:26:16] Christine Loh: Thank you.