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China Daily (Hong Kong) - - 40 YEARS ON - Con­tact the writer at [email protected]­nadai­lyhk.com

f I’m con­sumed by am­bi­tion, I can­not at­tain my ideals. If I do not at­tain tran­quil­ity, I will not achieve lofty goals.”

The fa­mous quote, at­trib­uted to Zhuge Liang — a dis­tin­guished states­man and strate­gist dur­ing the Three King­doms pe­riod of Chi­nese his­tory from 220 to 280 — found its way into a piece of Chi­nese cal­lig­ra­phy adorn­ing the wall of a prime of­fice build­ing in Ad­mi­ralty, Hong Kong Is­land, stand­ing in sub­tle har­mony with the world of hus­tle and bus­tle out­side.

It’s the of­fice of An­thony Fran­cis Neoh — a renowned Hong Kong bar­ris­ter with an end­less, im­pec­ca­ble record of pub­lic ser­vice — who, with his char­ac­ter­is­tic smile, re­calls his proac­tive in­volve­ment with China’s four decades of re­form and open­ing-up.

Just as Zhuge Liang, who de­voted his life­long ef­forts to the found­ing and growth of the State of Shu in a tur­bu­lent time of Chi­nese his­tory, Neoh, who adopts the cel­e­brated quote as his motto in life, con­trib­uted his wis­dom and strength dur­ing one of the coun­try’s most mag­nif­i­cent his­toric episodes that es­sen­tially paved the way for Chi­nese main­land com­pa­nies to list in Hong Kong, and blazed a trail in the healthy devel­op­ment of China’s se­cu­ri­ties mar­kets and le­gal sys­tem.

Neoh, who headed the Se­cu­ri­ties and Fu­tures Com­mis­sion — Hong Kong’s fi­nan­cial mar­ket watch­dog — from 1995 to 1998, is widely re­mem­bered for serv­ing as chief ad­vi­sor to the China Se­cu­ri­ties Reg­u­la­tory Com­mis­sion be­tween 1999 and 2004 at the in­vi­ta­tion of for­mer premier Zhu Rongji, with a nom­i­nal re­mu­ner­a­tion of 1 yuan a year.

His ser­vices earned him a place among seven prom­i­nent Hong Kong peo­ple named by Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping as ex­em­plary mod­els in the SAR’s zest­ful role in the na­tion’s eco­nomic re­form and open­ing-up process, when the pres­i­dent met a Hong Kong del­e­ga­tion in Bei­jing in Novem­ber to give the city a ring­ing en­dorse­ment as be­ing among the “mir­a­cle cre­ators” of China’s eco­nomic devel­op­ment.

“Forty years is a short span of time. Dur­ing a mere four decades, China has trans­formed it­self from an iso­lated back­wa­ter to a mod­ern mar­ket econ­omy at an un­think­able speed. This is a mag­nif­i­cent feat never seen be­fore in hu­man his­tory,” Neoh tells China Daily.

From Hong Kong’s per­spec­tive, he points out, tremen­dous changes had be­gun to un­fold since 1985 — the year the his­toric Sino-Bri­tish Joint Dec­la­ra­tion of­fi­cially took ef­fect, lay­ing the ground­work for the city’s re­turn to the moth­er­land and herald­ing a sea change on the hori­zon.

“One of the most un­for­get­table un­der­tak­ings” was the good hard road Neoh had taken to turn the H-share mar­ket into re­al­ity.

In 1992, Neoh, who was then an ex­ec­u­tive of the Stock Ex­change of Hong Kong — the pre­de­ces­sor of Hong Kong Ex­changes and Clear­ing Ltd — headed north with then stock ex­change chair­man Charles Lee Yehk­wong and other ex­ec­u­tives to lobby then vice-premier Zhu Rongji to al­low main­land en­ter­prises to go pub­lic in Asia’s fi­nan­cial hub.

China then had no se­cu­ri­ties law or con­tract law in black and white. In the be­lief that it might take an­other decade to get all the le­gal doc­u­ments well pre­pared, Neoh and Lee vowed be­fore Zhu to work out a le­gal frame­work with main­land coun­ter­parts within six months — a frame­work that would bring the main­land’s le­gal sys­tem in line with Hong Kong’s list­ing rules and which could also be widely ac­cepted by in­ter­na­tional in­vestors. If they made it, the deal is done.

It was the first meet­ing be­tween Zhu and Neoh. In the fol­low­ing years, Neoh would have more close en­coun­ters with the down-toearth leader that would even­tu­ally carve out a name for him­self among a con­stel­la­tion of great minds be­hind the na­tion’s mo­men­tous jour­ney to eco­nomic prow­ess.

Zhu gave the nod to the plan al­most in­stantly. Next came watch­ing work­ing groups from the main­land and Hong Kong toil­ing round the clock to de­vise a whole set of le­gal mech­a­nism that’s still in use to­day.

As a le­gal ex­pert, Neoh un­der­took the ma­jor part of the work to de­sign the mech­a­nism and rep­re­sented Hong Kong in ne­go­ti­at­ing with the main­land side.

The talks pro­ceeded slowly. Due to a huge di­ver­gence of le­gal con­cepts on both sides, they had to sit down at the ne­go­ti­a­tion ta­ble al­most ev­ery sin­gle day to shelve dis­putes and reach a con­sen­sus.

“It was a tough race against time. Some­times, the talks would start at 9 in the morn­ing and go on un­til 4 in the af­ter­noon the next day,” rem­i­nisces Neoh. “I buried my­self in a moun­tain of work day and night, so much so I had to put my own busi­ness aside.”

At the very start, some main­land of­fi­cials took an “us ver­sus them” at­ti­tude, giv­ing top pri­or­ity to safe­guard­ing main­land sys­tems and the in­ter­ests of Chi­nese com­pa­nies, while Hong Kong ex­perts were more fo­cused on pro­tec­tion for in­vestors in the lo­cal mar­ket. This re­sulted in a dead­lock.

Believ­ing that such men­tal­ity would lead them nowhere, Neoh brusquely told a main­land of­fi­cial: “You shouldn’t sit op­po­site me. We’re here to col­lab­o­rate with, rather than con­front each other. We should sit to­gether to work things out.”

“Hear­ing that, the of­fi­cial stood up and sat by my side. This way, the talks be­gan to make head­way, en­abling us to, ul­ti­mately, thrash out our dif­fer­ences and seal the deal,” says Neoh.

In July 1993, Ts­ing­tao Brew­ery — China’s sec­ond-largest brewer founded in 1903 by Ger­man and Bri­tish mer­chants — made his­tory as the first main­land en­ter­prise to float in the SAR in the first H-share list­ing, rais­ing HK$900 mil­lion.

At the list­ing cer­e­mony, Lee and other Hong Kong stock ex­change ex­ec­u­tives broke tra­di­tion, us­ing beer, rather than cham­pagne, for the toast.

By late last year, the mar­ket cap­i­tal­iza­tion of H-shares had sky­rock­eted from HK$18 bil­lion in 1993 to HK$5.9 tril­lion, with up to 267 list­ings con­tribut­ing to a fifth of the to­tal mar­ket value and more than one-third of over­all turnover.

The much-awaited dawn of H-shares helped State-owned en­ter­prises chart the course of catch­ing up with Hong Kong and in­ter­na­tional stan­dards in terms of dis­clo­sure and cor­po­rate gov­er­nance. It also of­fers a his­toric chance for the city’s stock mar­ket to grow from a re­gional mar­ket into a world­class player.

“The le­gal frame­work mapped out years ago proves to main­tain its vigor and vi­tal­ity in to­day’s world,” says Neoh. “Ex­perts on both sides took the months-long talks se­ri­ously and ded­i­cated their ef­forts to nail­ing down ev­ery de­tail of the frame­work. This gave birth to a le­gal mech­a­nism whose prac­ti­ca­bil­ity goes be­yond time, and ben­e­fits us over decades.”

Neoh’s bold­ness and talent im­pressed Zhu. Just be­fore stepping aside as SFC chair­man, he re­ceived the in­vi­ta­tion from the for­mer top leader.

Neoh vividly re­mem­bers it as be­ing on March 5, 1998 — the day when the first ses­sion of the ninth Na­tional Peo­ple’s Con­gress got un­der­way, with Zhu elected as the coun­try’s new premier.

“He was ex­tremely busy that day, but still man­aged to spare some time for me,” Neoh re­calls. “He asked if I could do him a fa­vor to serve as the CSRC’s chief ad­vi­sor. I would be paid as much as my cur­rent an­nual salary, or even more.”

But, Neoh pro­posed two con­di­tions. “First, I must get the go-ahead from my wife. This is a pre­req­ui­site. Se­condly, I wanted to ne­go­ti­ate the price. I asked for 1 yuan per year. No bar­gain.”

Neoh’s re­sponse sur­prised Zhu — the Hong Kong le­gal heavy­weight was draw­ing more than HK$6 mil­lion a year.

“It was a well thought out and self­ish de­ci­sion,” ex­plains Neoh. “A re­mu­ner­a­tion of 1 yuan an­nu­ally would al­low me to stand aloof from any mon­e­tary em­ploy­ment re­la­tion­ship and adopt a more ob­jec­tive stance to con­trib­ute ideas. It en­sured that my ad­vice would not be bi­ased from any per­sonal in­ter­est.”

Neoh took up the role of chief ad­vi­sor at the CSRC in a way that some­what un­der­scores his pur­suit of free­dom from van­ity and peace of mind as high­lighted in his life motto.

Over a five-year span, his work re­volved around of­fer­ing macro­scopic, di­rec­tional

and pol­icy-based ad­vice to the CSRC and the State Coun­cil. More of­ten than not, he di­rectly re­ported to Zhu in one-on-one meet­ings.

“We ex­changed ideas in re­laxed and ca­sual con­ver­sa­tions. There were some friendly ar­gu­ments, which al­ways ended up with re­cep­tive minds,” he re­calls.

Be­fore quit­ting that post in 2004, some of his ad­vice had been put into ac­tion. Oth­ers, like seeds of wis­dom, were preg­nant with a fu­ture change.

In a time em­brac­ing a dar­ing, near icon­o­clas­tic spirit of change, Neoh re­mem­bers peo­ple’s cu­ri­ous eyes when he was in­vited to lec­ture on Hong Kong’s le­gal sys­tem in front of hun­dreds of main­land ex­perts and of­fi­cials at the newly-es­tab­lished Shen­zhen Univer­sity in 1985.

He re­calls of­fi­cials’ thirst for knowl­edge and ex­per­tise when serv­ing as one of the le­gal ad­vis­ers to the Shen­zhen govern­ment be­tween 1988 and 1992.

His ef­forts put him on the front line of Shen­zhen’s early devel­op­ment. As he cheered on the city’s growth from a gritty fish­ing vil­lage into a bustling metropo­lis whose sky­line has turned al­most un­rec­og­niz­able, Neoh firmly be­lieves in Hong Kong’s “com­ple­men­tary role” in the coun­try’s devel­op­ment drive.

“Known for its in­ter­na­tional hori­zon, a well-es­tab­lished mar­ket with­out cur­rency con­trol and a so­ci­ety that puts peo­ple first, Hong Kong re­mains a book that main­land coun­ter­parts could take a leaf from for years to come.”

Over the past four decades, Neoh has wo­ven part and par­cel of his life into the fab­ric of most ma­jor his­toric mo­ments as the world’s sec­ond-largest econ­omy em­barked on the jour­ney to set up its le­gal sys­tem al­most from scratch. Nowa­days, he serves as a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at pres­ti­gious Chi­nese uni­ver­si­ties. Like al­ways, most of his work has no pay, no re­mu­ner­a­tion.

The le­gal whiz, now in his 70s, at­tributes his ded­i­ca­tion and hard work to the in­flu­ence of his grand­mother, who raised him.

His grand­fa­ther — an over­seas Chi­nese in Honolulu — was the class­mate and com­radein-arm of Sun Yat-sen, and a mem­ber of the Chi­nese del­e­ga­tion led by the coun­try’s most dis­tin­guished diplo­mat Vi Kyuin Wellington Koo (Gu Wei­jun) dur­ing the Paris Peace Con­fer­ence in 1919.

“Though ed­u­cated in church schools, with English dom­i­nat­ing my child­hood and school years, the sheer at­tach­ment and de­vo­tion to the coun­try was deeply rooted in my DNA,” says Neoh.

“Back in 1998, I had an of­fer to be a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at the Euro­pean Univer­sity In­sti­tute in Florence. I thought I would spend the rest of my life en­joy­ing Ital­ian opera there. But a call from Premier Zhu changed my life tra­jec­tory.

“If I could do some­thing for the sound devel­op­ment of Chi­nese se­cu­ri­ties mar­kets and le­gal sys­tem, it was my great­est plea­sure.”

An­thony Fran­cis Neoh,

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