20 October 2018
Tung Chee-hwa is invaluable to Alibaba as a politician  rather than as a businessman. Photo: HKEJ
Tung Chee-hwa is invaluable to Alibaba as a politician rather than as a businessman. Photo: HKEJ

What next after ‘Alipapa’?

Tung Chee-hwa is not going to hear the end of it anytime soon.

After being described as a “good grandfather but a bad chief executive” during his time as Hong Kong’s first post-handover leader, Tung attracted a whole new set of anti-fans within hours of being named to the board of Alibaba ahead of its blockbuster listing in the United States.

Local media ripped into the fact that Tung, 77, has not held any position in a listed company since he quit the family flagship, Orient Overseas International Ltd. (OOIL), 17 years ago to become Hong Kong’s first chief executive.

Hong Kong Inc. suffered eight of its worst years under his administration and only began to recover after he was forced to stand down in 2005.

Likewise, OOIL arguably had its best decade without him, much better off than it was under his leadership from 1986 to 1996.

Tung served as an independent non-executive director in Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corp. from 1995 to 1996 and in Hsin Chong International and Singtao Group in the 1990s.

His independent non-executive appointment to Alibaba is more about politics than business.

Tung’s political career has been thriving since he became deputy chairman of the CPPCC national committee. The chairmanship of the China-United States Exchange Foundation, which facilitates two-way exchanges, is an added feather in his cap.

When Tung accompanied president-in-waiting Xi Jinping on a visit to the United States in 2012, his political stock rose even higher. He became an unofficial mouthpiece for the man who would be anointed Chinese leader for the next decade.

Shortly before that, Tung famously told CNN that Xi had suffered back injury when he mysteriously disappeared from public view, missing high-profile meetings with visiting dignitaries.

Anyone with such stature, not to mention close relationships with the Clinton and Bush families, can be useful in helping smooth potential international tensions. And as a trusted ally of former president Jiang Zemin, Tung has a unique place in Chinese internal politics.

His Alibaba appointment no doubt reflects those advantages. Tung could be just the kind of person to have in the event Alibaba, which will be one of the world’s biggest listed companies, finds itself in a tight spot.

There’s also a lot of corporate dynamic at play here, which might need the services of an ambassador at large.  

Although Alibaba is a Chinese company (it was founded in Hangzhou in 1999), it is owned 34.4 percent by Japanese internet behemoth Softbank and 22 percent by United States giant Yahoo. Founder Jack Ma holds about 7 percent.

Tung yesterday said he is delighted with Alibaba’s invitation and is particularly impressed with its sustainable business approach, helping out small to medium-sized enterprises, not focused on short-term profit.

Yahoo founder Jerry Yang, former Goldman Sachs deputy chairman Michael Evans and Walter Kwauk Teh Ming, former KPMG partner in Beijing and consultant for Motorola Solutions, were also named independent non-executive directors.

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EJ Insight writer

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