From outspoken legislator to scrappy think tank startup boss, Christine Loh built a career on speaking her mind. Her think tank matured into a major force for promoting sustainability and led indirectly to a senior policy role in government. Now, armed with inside knowledge after five years in the CY administration, HKUST has hired the insider-outsider-insider to project influence in the realm of sustainability.
After five years as Under Secretary for the Environment in former chief executive CY Leung’s administration, Christine Loh went quiet. Rumours abounded about her future, including possible decampment to America. However, she has reemerged holding a new position at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) that will see her continue her role as a leader in sustainability. Her commitment to a sustainable Hong Kong remains the same.
Ms Loh is well known for her engagement in public policy, from getting her hands dirty in the mechanics of LegCo as member from 1992 (appointed, winning elections in 1995 and 1998) to 2000. One of her best known efforts was in stopping more than 500 hectares of proposed land reclamation through the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance in 1997.
She then took up the difficult work of policy entrepreneurialism, founding Hong Kong’s first genuinely independent policy think tank, Civic Exchange. She also founded pro-democracy political group Citizens Party. She wrote a book on dark influences on policy, Underground Front: The Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong, published in 2010. All this was accomplished before she was invited invited to lead the Environment Bureau along with the Secretary of Environment, Wong Kam-sing, in 2012.
She now is playing not one, but two new roles at HKUST adjunct professor at the Division of Environment and Sustainability and Chief Development Strategist at the Institute for the Environment. And she is up to the challenge.
Influence and impact
“Having worked in the private commercial sector, private non-profit sector, and having done policy research for many years, as well as having been a legislator and undersecretary, I have a deep understanding of how things work in the difference sectors,” says Ms Loh.
“It is useful to work within a university to bring experts and decision-makers from the different sectors together to discuss policy perspectives and solutions.”
“This is at a strategic level to develop our new policy division and its academic contribution, and to extend the work and impact of HKUST locally, as well as outside Hong Kong,” says Ms Loh of her role as Chief Development Strategist.
HKUST aims to make a difference in key issues that fall under the sustainability rubric: Air, water, waste, marine and economy and society . Her position is the first of its kind.
“This is a position which I believe I am the first person to hold. It is to help enhance the university’s strength and impact in environmental and sustainability related research,” says Ms Loh.
Research has always played a role in her efforts to influence policy. While others might choose to wield crass populism, Ms Loh always backs up her arguments with solid facts.
“I worked with several universities and many researchers over the years, as well as universities and think tanks outside Hong Kong,” she explains. Now she will source much of that research from her HKUST colleagues. “My work involves understanding the work of scholars at HKUST and see how they may be relevant to sustainability,” said Loh.
But she doesn’t just take the research as it bubbles up from the caldera of academic ferment. She gives advice on specific issues, works with scholars on specific projects where her expertise could be of use and helps scholars extend their networks in and outside Hong Kong.
She doesn’t come to HKUST as terra incognita. “I have a very long association with HKUST. I was a member of its council for seven years and an adjunct professor for two years,” Loh said. “I have also worked on many research projects with HKUST scholars when I was a legislator and subsequently as CEO of Civic Exchange.”
Beyond that, her experience and extensive network, globally and locally, will be brought to bear to the benefit of HKUST and researchers she collaborates with.
For example, HKUST is already a leader in air quality science. Now the university seeks to expand its expertise in atmospheric gases. Ms Loh is part of negotiations with an overseas university to bring expertise to HKUST.
Another project relates to climate adaptation and resilience. Ms Loh is helping the university to design a conference addressing the issue, including identifying and inviting overseas experts.
Ms Loh is not one to take a ‘post-retirement’ sinecure, moving at half speed. She expects to bring the same tenacity to her new work that made her a legendary journalist, politician and activist.
“I’ve been interested in many issues – equal opportunities, urban planning, the environment, constitutional reform. But once I’m doing something, I tend to get really stuck in. I’m like a dog that won’t let go,” said Loh.