Published: 17:40, June 6, 2023 | Updated: 17:40, June 6, 2023
Clement Chan: COVID has made it difficult for some industries
By Eugene Chan

Clement Chan, chairman of Hong Kong’s Consumer Council, attends the Straight Talk show on TVB, May 30, 2023. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Consumer Council chairman Clement Chan is on our show this week.

Chan talks about how COVID-19 has affected the type of complaints received by the council. When it comes to initiating better protection for consumers, he says the pandemic has made it difficult for some industries and therefore it might not have been the perfect time for new legislation. He also says the Council has always spent more time in research and studies to make sure issues affecting the most people, such the recent study on property management fees, are well covered.

Check out the full transcript of TVB’s Straight Talk host Dr Eugene Chan’s interview with Clement Chan:

Eugene: Good evening! Thank you for joining us on Straight Talk. Our guest this evening is the chairman of the Consumer Council, Clement Chan. Chan has an accounting background and is currently the managing director of assurance at BDO in Hong Kong. He was the president of the Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants in 2014 and was involved in accounting standard setting and governance activities. Tonight, we have asked him to share with us why protecting consumer rights is vital to ensuring Hong Kong is still a shopper's paradise. Welcome, Clement! 

Clement: Thank you, Eugene!

Eugene: Clement, as you know, Hong Kong has been known as a shopper's paradise for decades. And whenever there is consumption, disputes are bound to arise, and while all these disputes are kind of unavoidable, how prevalent are shoppers' complaints that you've received at the Consumer Council?

Clement: It's very important to us. As you know, for complaints, depending on the nature of the complaints, the number of the complaints on certain industries, it does give us some sort of insight on, which are the prevailing consumers' sort of behavior, and the industries that need attention and improvement.

Eugene: Right. So, how many complaints do you get, on average per year? Do you get the ones that have more complaints and ones that have fewer complaints?

Clement: Just to give you an example, in 2022, we did receive over 30,000 complaints, which was about a 43 percent jump on a year-on-year basis. So, in the previous years, we did get around, you know, sort of over 20 something thousand sort of complaints.

Eugene: So, will you say that the recent trend will be sort of on the upward scale, or it just happened to be just 2022?

Clement: I think it's fair to say that the nature of the complaints, the source of the complaints, the nature of the complaints, do vary a bit, although the number does jump a lot, but in fairness, the complaints about the actual consumption carried out in the market actually comes down a bit. But the total number increased because of the increased number of complaints on online shopping. 

Eugene: Really?

Clement: Yes.

Eugene: So, that means 2022 is the year that you see sort of a 43 percent jump, as you just said, and do you see this as a trend in the years to come? Or do you think it's just one year? In 2022?

Clement: I do. I do think that the online shopping complaints will be on the rising trend in the years to come.

Eugene: Right. So, what are the highest number of complaint cases? I'm sure you've got different categories? I mean, what are the most common complaints that you receive at the council?

Clement: The 2022 statistic gave us a clear picture, the one that is leading is the food and entertainment sector. Food and entertainment sector, particularly the online food portal, actually is leading the list. As you can imagine, because of the COVID-19 pandemic that we just had, I think more and more people are ordering their food through online food portal shops and things like that.

Eugene: But as I'm sure all of us like our friends or relatives, they've been ordering food online, and I'm sure that trend will continue because it's quite convenient. So, do you have any complaint cases that you can share with us? Anything interesting, in the food and entertainment?

Clement: Sure. I think the most common cause for complaint in food delivery is about the non-delivery or the loss of the order. We had a case where the customer knew the portal very well, and he did all the order of food in one night, just like what he usually does. And he got the confirmation back from the shopper saying that the order has been taken. So, he waited and over half an hour the food didn't come back, and he was wondering so he checked on the apps again, it says that the order's been confirmed. So he waited for another hour. And then he called up the customer service, the customer service told him that the order was not there. So he said that he would like to cancel it. But he thought that was the end of it. But the following day, in the morning, his order did come through. 

Eugene: Really?

Clement: Yes, and they called customer service again. And then he found out that the order actually was initially taken as a pre order for the following day. So that creates, you know, sort of a source of complaint. And sometimes I think, you know, that that tells you, even though you know the shops, you know the system, well, you might have gone through the procedures for thousands of times, still because of computer, because of the connectivity of the signal and things like that, sometimes it does create some unexpected, you know, sort of error.

Eugene: Right? So if something like that happens to you, what would you advise our viewers to do? I'm sure that can happen to anyone.

Clement: Yes. I take our advice to ask the customers to be vigilant, to be particularly paying attention to the terms and conditions. And what happens if you want to cancel the order, or you want to request for the refund, what the sort of things that have been written on the website or on the initial sort of advertisements saying in what circumstances they could do whatever to cancel the order. 

Eugene: But surely, you will say, let's put a case to the Consumer Council when that happens, right?

Clement: If you have exhausted all those things and still cannot get the right results, they could come to us to see whether we can help them.

Eugene: Right. So apart from food and entertainment, what other complaints do you get that are quite common?

Clement: The next category from… the second category is the electrical appliances. And electrical appliances, again, you know, it actually went up quite a bit and is now close to 3,000. And that actually has increased by about 16 percent as compared with 2021. And I think we take it that because ... again because of the pandemic, people tend to stay at home more often. And because of their time at home, they are using electrical appliances more. And as a result, the wear and tear and the more attention paid to the proper functioning of the electrical appliances lead to the increased number of complaints as well.

Eugene: Well, hopefully those complaints aren't related to a safety issue, because I remember, recently in the Mid-Levels, there was a flat that was on fire because of some overheating of a system. So, how does the council ensure safety issues are addressed and make sure all the communities are being protected?

Clement: There is a specific legislation called the consumer goods safety ordinance. That is a very clear legislation regulating and asking all the merchants, all the traders who are selling electrical appliances in Hong Kong, and to consumers need to ensure that all the goods that they're selling, are complying with the safety standard compiled by Hong Kong at large.

Eugene: Just now when you mentioned two of the major complaints are due to COVID. That people have been having more online ordering of food and now using more electrical appliances. One thing that comes to our minds is actually with opening of the borders, like travelling resumes or what we call revenge tourism, right. So, do you get more complaints on that as well?

Clement: Absolutely, absolutely, particularly now, in recent times when the pandemic is really behind us and the border reopened. And we are seeing more and more number of travel-related complaints. To give you an example, like in 2022, when we were talking about the complaint cases in travel-related matters, it actually went up to around ... over 2,500 cases, which was about a 43 percent increase from last year as well.

Eugene: Yes. So, with all these complaints, I'm sure the council would want to help to do a resolution. And sorry to ask, do you have any target rate of achieving to sort out these issues?

Clement: We don't have a target rate as such, but we try to help in whatever circumstance, in whatever cases that was reported to us, we try to do our bit in helping the related party, the stakeholders to come to some sort of compromise or resolution through our conciliation procedures.

Eugene: Right. So, what will be more pre-emptive consumer protection efforts that council will do, because what we said so far, are what has happened. I'm sure you want to do some sort of education and prevention. I mean, what efforts will you try to make to minimize all these complaints?

Clement: In our view, and our experience, I think it takes more to create a safe pre-emptive situation for consumers. And I think that there are three pillars involved. The first one is about the right legislative regimes. Like I said, in Hong Kong, we do have legislations in relation to consumer protection. But however, unlike some other jurisdiction, we do not have one single legislation protecting the consumers' rights. But we do have a field related to consumer related matters, which has a combined effect of providing protection for consumers, such as Trade Descriptions Ordinance, such as Consumer Goods Safety Ordinance that I mentioned earlier.

Eugene: Right, Chairman, let's take a break now. And viewers, we will be back very soon.

Straight Talk presenter Eugene Chan (left) interviews Consumer Council chairman Clement Chan, May 30, 2023. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Eugene: Thank you for staying with us. We have been talking with Clement Chan, the chairman of the Consumer Council, about the number and types of complaints that they receive, and how the council resolves these disputes. So, chairman, in the first part we had briefly touched on the different categories and we do see a trend of increase. And I believe it is something that you’d like to clarify.

Clement: Yes, sorry about that. Just now when we were talking about the number of complaints that we received in 2022, I did give you the figure that it was over 30,000. It represents about 12 percent increase on a year-on-year basis, rather than 43 percent that I alluded earlier by error. 

Eugene: Right. I am sure the viewers will appreciate your clarification. I think for most viewers.

Clement: Thank you.

Eugene: I think the council, I mean it is quite well known to do in-depth reports and product tests and studies. And we do see the Consumer Council at monthly conferences, and also a very long-time magazine, Chinese magazine, called the Choice. So, you have recently released reports on something like food and like carcinogen, or cooking oil, etc. But some people will say that the council is a toothless tiger, not because I am in that profession, because you can't really make them change the way of practice. So, how would you respond to that as a chairman?

Clement: Well, we are not … it is true that we are not a law enforcement agency in Hong Kong. But however, there are so many things in our toolbox that we can do to make sure that things are happening in their orderly manner. To give you a few examples, like we are always in close contact with law enforcement agents, such as Customs, such as Hong Kong Police Force. If during our … in the course of our work and our survey, if it comes to our attention that some of the merchants are practicing unscrupulous practices, such as they are selling things which are contravening the Trade Descriptions Ordinance or some people are doing things by deception, we can always report it to the law enforcement agent, to ask them to take prompt action. And don't forget, we also have the ultimate last resort that we can always rely on, it is that there is a very effective and powerful tool that we can use, such as name and shame. If we sort of advertise or make it to public that what are the erroneous sort of action and the malpractices of certain merchants, they are definitely out of the market because of our action.

Eugene: Right. Chairman, I do have an opportunity to go and visit some of your website, and I realize that you are not just protecting shoppers, but you also do advocacy work to protect our consumers in our daily life from various aspects, like housing, commuting, dining, and everything, even to insurance and finance. So, can you tell us more about your advocacy work? I mean it is definitely not an easy role because it encompasses a wide range of topics, and each one will take time. So, how long do these studies take? And how would you best communicate to the community?

Clement: Indeed, you are absolutely right, Eugene. We cover not just the consumer expenses on entertainment, food, and things like that, we do cover everything that is involved in the consumer’s life, such as housing, commuting, etc, like you mentioned. And for advocacy, we actually spend a lot of our resources in doing advocacy. If we identify some topics which is worth studying and dive deeper for the consumer interest, we will sort of put resources into preparing sort of a detailed study. Normally, such a detailed study would involve … could be going to as long as one year, typically we spend a lot of resources in studying, research, surveys, we carry out interviews, and we also sort of do a lot of observations and desktop studies on related matters before we come to some sort of position on the subject matter. And for the last 10 years, we actually did over 20 such topics and focused studies. 

Eugene: Right. Chairman, as a community person, if you want to do something, if we go to your website and look at all your materials. But you know things are happening at very fast speed now, and how can we ensure the information they receive are still valid?

Clement: Normally when we do … decide on studying certain areas, certain space, we dive very deep and normally it covers the issues that are not just time specific, it’s really the hardcore matters relating to that issue. Just to give you an example, lately we had done a survey on property outside of Hong Kong, because we just noted that there is a growing interest of Hong Kong people in buying properties outside of Hong Kong, which had been sort of shown and displayed in the selling events in Hong Kong. And we believe that because of the growing interest, we do think that there are a lot of things that we should recommend or warn or remind the customers, consumers, to be aware of when they are buying properties outside of Hong Kong. So, that is the kind of things that is really non-time-specific.

Eugene: Right. So, there is a pool of materials that is good for reference for the general community, should they want to spend the money and they want to be vigilant, your … I mean the council would be a very good resource place, isn’t it?

Clement: Yes, yes, indeed.

Eugene: Just now you mentioned about you do work with the enforcement agencies, the Customs and Excise and also the Hong Kong Police Force. But those are actually reactionary work again. Will the council or has the council been able to change any of the legislations? Because all your reports must be put in a good deal of work, like even up to a year. It will be a wasteful effort if it doesn't really change things because sometimes we do need laws to make sure things will happen in the right direction. What is your experience like? I mean does the government take your advice seriously? Have you seen actual implementation or new laws putting in?

Clement: I think it depends on a lot of other variables as well. Although, like I said, the topic that we chose normally carries a lot of impact on consumers at large, and that is why we picked them. But also it depends on a lot of other things, like … I give you an example, another thing that we looked at in the past was the cooling off period, cooling off period to do with certain industries. And it was such a relevant topic for a lot of consumers, particularly consuming or enjoying the services of those affected industries. But because of things like the COVID-19 pandemic, which might have already created a very general sort of hardship for the merchants in that industries around that time. So, when our report came out at that time, during COVID, the government might think … I am sure the government would see the angle of the need of looking into those spaces. But because the timing might not be right, they are saying that though they would try to look at these issues at a later time after the general trading circumstances and phenomenon become better.

Eugene: Right. Chairman, recently you were in the news talking about property management costs. I mean why would you want to do a survey on property management fees? I mean it certainly just comes out, and I have been wondering any rationale behind that?

Clement: The simple factor is over half of our population in Hong Kong are actually living in multi-story buildings, and when people living in multi-story buildings, they need to pay building management fees. Sometimes it is out of their control, and that why it affects a lot of people, and the magnitude is quite good … quite significant, for a lot of households. Therefore we picked that topic to look at.

Eugene: Right. The reason why I raised that up is all of us are being tuned in to say we have to pay management fees on time, or else your name will be posted on the notice board. But do you actually get complaints on those? And how many were there?

Clement: Oh, we do. Like in the last 11 years, we actually received over 600, closed to 700 complaints, about the quality of the management fee … the quality of the management service, or the misapplication of management fees, so on and so forth. And therefore, we do actually see and receive a lot of complaints about management fees.

Eugene: Have you been able to resolve some of these complaints that you received?

Clement: We did, we did resolve some of the complaints. But however, the experience that we have actually give us the impression that a lot of the late owners, they might not be as well-equipped as the developers or the management company, in terms of the knowledge of the management fees. And this is quite a complex subject, therefore we are saying that it is definitely worthwhile for us to do more research on this, and try to facilitate, or try to whip up the due interest on this area, so as to hopefully see some sort of improvement coming in. 

Eugene: Right. Chairman, I am afraid that is all the time we have. And thank you, Clement, for, explaining to us how the Consumer Council continues to protect consumers’ interest, and empower them in their purchases to get the best value for their money. This will definitely help Hong Kong maintain its reputation as a “shopper’s paradise”. Thank you viewers for tuning in, and we will see you next time.