Blot on Hong Kong companies

Liang Hongfu

2007-11-16 16:37:58  China Daily      

Hong Kong can pass a minimum wage law when corporate conscience has failed. But what can we do to promote corporate social responsibility, or CSR, in this commercial town where profit is king?

This is the question facing not only the government and the legislature, but also almost all citizens who have a stake in this issue, which was raised by a recent survey which showed a lack of CSR awareness in the corporate sector. The project, undertaken by the University of Hong Kong between November 2006 and April this year, is said to be one of the largest CSR surveys in the world.

Only 23 percent of the 10,094 companies surveyed indicated any awareness of CSR, and just 9 percent of those companies said they have dedicated resources specifically to CSR.

Findings of the survey show that "companies (in Hong Kong) practice CSR only when it helps (advance their) commercial interests", said Pang King-chee, chairman of the Committee on the Promotion of Civic Education, which commissioned the survey.

Business leaders interviewed by the local media seemed to agree with the results of the survey, which, according to Lo Foo-cheung, vice-president of the Chinese Manufacturers' Association, "reflected the real situation".

This seeming ingratitude of our business sector points to serious flaws in Hong Kong's much cherished free enterprise economic environment in which a crude and elementary form of capitalism appears to have grown so lush that it has chocked off the evolutionary process that is seen in many other developed economies.

In their single-minded pursuit of profits, Hong Kong's entrepreneurs have apparently failed to acknowledge the social cost of creating and maintaining a business-friendly environment in which they thrive. Under a long-standing economic policy, the Hong Kong government has always adjusted public sector expenditure to accommodate the private sector.

For example, the government in the mid-1970s delayed the construction of a much-needed water-front highway to relieve the horrific traffic jam along the old roads because it was deemed necessary to avoid driving up the cost of capital and wages at the time of an economic recession. The excesses of the property oligarchy, which was sometimes blamed, correctly or incorrectly, for driving up housing prices in Hong Kong, have largely been glossed over, and the government's call for giving the low-pay workers a better deal has largely been ignored.

Things were different many years ago when most Hong Kong business entrepreneurs came from poor families uprooted from their home villages on the mainland. They were hard-nose business people no less shrewd or ruthless, if necessary, than their modern counterparts. But they had one thing that seems to be lacking in today's property barons and financial wizards, and that thing is: compassion.

The Tung Wah Hospital group, the first institution dedicated to providing quality health care to the poor, was founded on the contributions from the many big and small trading companies, money changers, gold shops and dried goods stores on the main streets and the back alleys in the old commercial section of the city. Their generous donations had also funded the establishment of Po Leung Kuk, which has provided a decent home and good education to many thousands orphans.

These early entrepreneurs probably had never heard of CSR. But they were well aware of their social responsibility. Tung Wah and Po Leung stand as a testimony to their generosity and thoughtfulness in repaying the society by helping those less fortunate than they. That is CSR.