CUHK Council Chairman 2009–2015
Dr. Vincent Cheng is best known as the first Chinese Executive Director of HSBC Holdings and the first Chinese Chairman of The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Limited. At CUHK, he is widely known as the Vice-President of the second Student Union, a New Asia graduate in economics in 1973, and the first alumnus to become Council Chairman of the University.
On 23 October last year, Dr. Cheng bade farewell to his six-year chairmanship. He talked about his experience as Council Chairman, as well as his reminiscence about his alma mater.
You took up chairmanship of the University Council after you had stepped down at HSBC. You said your leaving HSBC was hardly a retirement at all. Are you finally retired now?
I still don’t have a retirement, as my friends won’t let me. A few of them invited me to be independent directors of their listed companies, which keeps me quite busy. I also participate in the preparation of the CUHK Medical Centre. The rest of my time is for my family, especially my three-year-old granddaughter, whom I spoil and my wife look after, respectively. My friends no longer complain they had to get in a long line to have dinner with me. I swim for 45 minutes daily. This is my routine, come rain or shine. I am occupied but not overwhelmed.
Did you encounter any difficulties while you were at the helm of the University Council?
Nothing special, I’d say. First, CUHK has a very good team. I enjoyed my collaboration with Prof. Lawrence J. Lau and Prof. Joseph J.Y. Sung, the past and current Vice-Chancellors respectively, and Prof. Fok Tai-fai, Pro-Vice Chancellor. Second, during my tenure there were a number of major projects underway, and of course their implementation wasn’t smooth-sailing all the time. At the Council meetings, members put forward views which were as diverse as they were valuable, and in the end we always managed to come to a consensus. The support from all parties redoubled our resolve to succeed, bringing all these projects to fruition. Third, I deeply believe that as Council Chairman, my major role was to map out the University’s future development with the senior management. What remained to be done was supervision and support, and support should come before supervision. My experience over the past few years tells me I was right.
What tasks were most memorable to you?
There were quite a few, and the first one was the setting up of the five new Colleges. To cope with the increase in student intake in 2012 without compromising the ideal of our collegiate system, the University decided to build five new Colleges. CUHK is a public university, and government funding only accounts for its basic expenditures. We need to raise funds to drive our infrastructural development. With the support of the Council and the community, we managed to set up all five Colleges, injecting even more variety into our collegiate system and further enriching students’ learning opportunities.
The second one was the setting up of CUHK (Shenzhen). The new campus was the brainchild of Prof. Lawrence J. Lau, and the idea drew considerable skepticism at the beginning. We met with Mr. Wang Yang, then Secretary of the Guangdong Party Committee, who gave us much support. The plan also won the endorsement of the Shaw Foundation, which gave us a seed capital of over HK$100 million. We admitted the first cohort in 2014. Professor Sung, a few Council members and I attended the inauguration ceremony, during which I had the opportunity to talk to the students. The encounter was a touching one.
The third was the CUHK Medical Centre, whose conceptualization, approval process, and initial planning had been quite smooth. It is a new idea, and our challenges are many. The biggest challenge is the financing of its construction. Fortunately, we’ve got a pledge from the government to provide loans to us. We have also got a generous donation of HK$1.3 billion from the Hong Kong Jockey Club. It is the biggest single donation ever made by the Jockey Club to the medical sector.
The fourth was the 50th Anniversary celebrations of CUHK. The celebratory events lasted for months, culminating in a fantastic gala dinner. Alumni from different years gathered together to reminisce about the good old days or reunite with long-lost friends. The event was very touching indeed.
What words do you have for CUHK and its students?
A university’s primary duty lies in research and education. CUHK has been doing very well in both regards, and its care for its students is felt by many. I hope this commitment can live on. At the 50th anniversary of CUHK, I quoted a saying by the Sung Dynasty Confucian philosopher Zhang Zai which translates roughly: ‘to inspire people to be charitable; to show people the proper way to live; to pass on to posterity the great learning of the sages; to strive for the long-lasting peace of the world.’ I think CUHK members should make this our guiding principle in life.
I love what Rancho, the protagonist in the Indian film The Three Idiots, said, ‘Pursue excellence, and success will follow.’ You don’t have to hanker after success; you should instead find out what really interests you and apply yourself, then success will follow. Dr. Ch’ien Mu said that we should be after a career, not a job. A career is not understood solely in money terms; it pertains to personal success and one’s commitment to family and society.
We should take pride in the tradition of civic responsibility espoused by so many generations of CUHK students. I think there is nothing wrong with the expression of one’s views, but no matter how lofty your ideals, resorting to verbal violence will only undermine your moral authority. When I was a student leader, I had a cordial relationship with professors whose point of view differed from mine. Mutual respect is crucial.
What should young alumni do to help the University?
If you run your own company, give more opportunities to CUHK graduates; be their mentors and guide them with your experience. Donate to CUHK, set up scholarships for the underprivileged students. The most important thing is to pay heed to the future development of the University and lend a hand when you are needed. This is a tradition we should cherish and nurture.
This article was originally published in No. 1, 2016 What a University Can Do about Climate Change, Bulletin in Aug 2016.