Feature: Hong Kong tycoon in the spotlight

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  • Sunday, 22 Sep 2019

Eye of the storm: Li is losing his popularity in China and Hong Kong after being late in commenting on the ongoing protests. — Filepic

Li Ka-Shing has come under fire for his remarks on violent anti-government protests in the Special Administrative Region.

HONG Kong’s richest man Li Ka-shing has been portrayed admirably as a “hero” for four decades due to his business acumen and vast contributions to the economic development of China and Hong Kong.

But not anymore.

After the 91-year-old made some “ambiguous” remarks and pleaded for leniency for young protesters, Beijing and Chinese social media users took the opportunity to paint him as a “villain” and reopen old wounds.

Li’s disposal of most of his prime properties in China and Hong Kong in recent years, which had come under attack by official media before, is returning to haunt him.

Nicknamed “superman” for his business prowess, the world’s 28th richest man was criticised for being “ungrateful to China” when he began to sell prime assets in Beijing and Shanghai in 2015 and shifted his business pivot to the West.

The legendary self-made tycoon, who left school at age 15, built up his Cheung Kong group from a company selling plastic flowers to an international conglomerate.

An astute investor, he amassed much of his wealth from massive investment in land and property development in mainland China and Hong Kong, made possible through political links with top leaders of the Communist Party of China.

In Hong Kong, Li’s well-diversified group has business interests in everything from property development, telecommunications, and insurance to manufacturing, shopping malls and retail.

Public anger: The shortage of affordable housing is seen as a key factor that has sent thousands of youths onto the streets to join protesters in setting fires and throwing petrol bombs. — AFPPublic anger: The shortage of affordable housing is seen as a key factor that has sent thousands of youths onto the streets to join protesters in setting fires and throwing petrol bombs. — AFP

Various financial news reports place Li as the world’s leading port investor and property developer and operating the largest health and beauty retailer in Asia and Europe.

According to Forbes magazine, Li’s latest net worth stands at US$29.4bil (RM123bil).

Li and three other property players monopolise the property market in Hong Kong, so their names have often appeared in analyses of the current situation.

Thanks to their monopoly, the “Big Four”, as they’re known, can jointly dictate the market and rental prices of properties in the crowded territory, where housing and property prices are ranked the highest in the world.

The shortage of affordable housing is seen as a key factor that sent thousands of youths to the streets to join the current protests.

Hence, analysts and academics have held property magnates responsible for contributing to the current turmoil that has seen rioters setting fires, throwing petrol bombs, beating up residents and destroying public utilities.

Although the mass protests started in mid-June, Hong Kong’s super rich did not make a public stand against the violence being committed by black-clad protesters until China stepped up its verbal attacks on the demonstrators.

The international financial hub is experiencing its worst political crisis since 1997, when the British government handed it back to China.

Peaceful protests originally aimed at an extradition Bill have now widened to include calls for democratic reforms and independence; and since July 1, they have escalated to organised crimes and violence.

Controversial words: Li placed advertisements in Hong Kong newspapers that were criticised for being cryptic. — BloombergControversial words: Li placed advertisements in Hong Kong newspapers that were criticised for being cryptic. — Bloomberg

Taking the hint from Beijing, Hong Kong’s prominent corporations with major business interests on the mainland began to condemn the violence early last month. But Li’s companies were nowhere to be heard.

When Li finally broke his silence on Aug 16, some questioned why it had taken him so long to denounce the violence.

But the sharpest criticisms directed against him have been caused by his ambiguous stance.

The magnate, in the name of “a Hong Kong resident, Li Ka-shing”, issued in pro-Beijing newspapers two Chinese language advertisements that were considered cryptic.

One ad carried the Chinese phrase “the best intention can result in the worst outcome”. This could be taken to mean that the government’s good intention in launching the extradition Bill has resulted in protests, or that the protesters’ lofty aim for democracy has plunged Hong Kong into chaos.

But the most thought-provoking and interesting content was a Tang dynasty poem on melon picking, written by the youngest son of beautiful empress Wu Zetian (624-705).

The classic poem, The Melon Of Huangtai Cannot Endure Further Picking, discreetly warned Wu of the risk of removing all melons.

Putting it into a real-life context, it was a message to the empress to stop persecuting sons. If all sons were killed, Wu would risk not having her own son inheriting her throne.

Before the poem was written, China’s first female emperor, who had become very suspicious of people around her, had killed two children and exiled one to ensure absolute power in the palace.

The poem, said many commentators, could be interpreted by the government and protesters to suit their purpose accordingly.

Li’s critics, however, chose to argue that the best “melons” in Hong Kong and China had been “plucked” by Li when China was opening up in the 1980s and before the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, when Li bought many properties cheap.

On Sept 8, the tycoon again found himself in the spotlight when he visited a Buddhist monastery to “pray for Hong Kong”.

Urging all to look at the “bigger picture”, Li was heard telling a group of people in Cantonese that he hoped the authorities could “open one side of the net” to let the “leaders of tomorrow” off.

Since June, the police have arrested more than 1,000 protesters for breaking the law.

Li’s appeal for leniency for protesters drew harsh criticism from Netizens, who argued that Hong Kong’s future would be ruined if rioters became the “leaders of tomorrow”.

His appeal also got a cool reception from Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam, who said her government “will not endorse or condone any act that goes against the rule of law”.

Joining in the fray were China’s state media. The People’s Daily and the Xinhua News Agency took the opportunity to highlight Hong Kong’s housing problems.

“It’s time (for property developers) to reevaluate short-term and long-term interests, and strike a balance between individual interests and the overall interests of social development, ” said The People’s Daily on Sept 12.

While the Big Four property tycoons were blamed for making housing unaffordable to ordinary folk, Li was chided for being “too tolerant of rioters”.

Li struck back on Sept 13 after enduring months of speculation and criticisms.

Calling the accusations that he had caused the city’s housing crisis and condoned crime “unwarranted”, he said it was “regrettable” that his remarks had been misinterpreted.

In fact, in an earlier clarification via a video, he stated that he was “merely a successful businessman”, not a superman or politician. Hence, he should not be judged by a high moral standard and be expected to perform the duties of a government.

But whether he is misinterpreted or not, it is clear that currently, the Beijing and Hong Kong governments expect the Big Four to show more corporate social responsibility to help stabilise Hong Kong.

It is also clear that the Big Four are unlikely to be treated with the same awe and respect as before by the authorities.

The Big Four might not be able to dictate land policies in Hong Kong as they had done in the past decades.

Already, there are calls on the Hong Kong government to seize land being “hoarded for profit”, so that it could be freed to develop affordable housing.

Li might have to contend with losing some glitter from his glorious past as a result of the verbal lashings.

However, whether you call Li “hero” or “villain” or “superman”, this influential Asian businessman can still claim credit for contributing to China’s economic development from the 1980s onwards.

Many out there will still admire him for his great achievements.

And his legacies and philanthropic acts cannot be erased from history. His donations, often in the billions, given to charities and prominent universities in China, Hong Kong, the United States, Canada and other parts of the world are well-documented.

For China, the most notable legacy was Li’s donation to set up Shantou University (STU) and STU Medical College near his hometown Chaozhou in 1981. He has earmarked grants totalling HK$8bil (RM4.3bil) for STU’s development.

Outside China, major beneficiaries include Cambridge University, Stanford University, Singapore Management University, University of California, National University of Singapore and University of Alberta.

Regarded as one of Asia’s most generous philanthropists, Li owns the second largest private foundation in the world, after the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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