image

Li Ka-shing

Hong Kong should take seriously Li Ka-shing’s warning on the economy

Downbeat forecast by city’s richest man should act as a rallying call for society to unite in the face of global adversity

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 March, 2016, 12:34am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 March, 2016, 12:34am

Can the current economic downturn in Hong Kong really be worse in some ways than during the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in 2003? Many people who lived through that time, when the city faced a global travel blacklisting, might find that comparison a stretch. Perhaps that is because Sars struck swiftly, whereas our current woes have crept up on us from external origins. But coming from Li Ka-shing, it has at least got people’s attention. What sets Hong Kong’s richest man apart is not just his wealth, but that he is an exception among our tycoons in his willingness to comment on wider issues. The results announcements of his flagship companies CK Hutchison and Cheung Kong Property – a regular platform for questions and answers – are therefore eagerly anticipated by the media.

He did not let them down this time, saying the city’s economy was having some of its toughest moments in decades, with “property sales and retail sales [at times] worse than during [Sars]”. It is not often that Li is so downbeat. He also listed a gloomy catalogue of negatives for an externally oriented economy like Hong Kong’s, ranging from global deflationary pressures, volatile markets and Europe’s financial woes to political uncertainty, the refugee crises in Europe and geopolitical risks in the Middle East and Africa.

Hong Kong is used to reproach from Li, for example about behaving like a “spoilt child” despite support from Beijing, and underestimating the challenge posed by Shanghai. But his latest thoughts are more like a rallying call for unity against a common enemy, including an appeal to politicians to refrain from anything that would “harm Hong Kong further”. It should not be dismissed lightly, given that Li presumably relies on exclusive research and analysis critical to his business affairs. Ironically, the same day, Hong Kong slipped three places to 75th in a UN happiness survey that identified inequality as the biggest cause of unhappiness. That should be a reminder to society that failure to address division can be a weakness in the face of adversity.