Times have changed for Li Ka-shing, but he is still the devil we know
If ‘Superman’ sells more of his assets, there would be room for more competition to break his dominance of the local economy, but the chances are his dominant conglomerate would simply be replaced by another one, with mainland ties
Wow, for a few seconds, I thought I read Li Ka-shing was selling his iconic flagship Cheung Kong Center. Actually, it’s The Center, at 99 Queen’s Road Central, that he has put on the market.
Still, is it completely beyond the realm of possibility for Li to sell 2 Queen’s Road – as it surely was just a few years ago?
Times have changed much for the most extolled of our tycoons.
After the 1997 handover, Chinese presidents always stayed at one of Li’s hotels on any visit to Hong Kong and made sure to have lunch with “Superman” and his two sons.
Recently though, state media from People’s Daily to Global Times have made periodic attacks on Li, complaining about his withdrawal from the mainland via asset sales or the domiciling of his flagship companies offshore rather than in Hong Kong. He is no longer seen as a loyalist by the ruling elite, but as an opportunistic businessman driven by profit rather than patriotism.
In Hong Kong, his public image has arguably fared even worse. Because of the dominance of his business empire, spanning property, telecommunications, ports, supermarkets, drugstores, utilities and much else, the man who was once dubbed “Superman” is seen more as a villain than a hero in some quarters.
Li sits at the apex of the city’s business elite, which has benefited mightily from economic transition after the handover and from globalisation. The global financial crisis – and the asset inflation thereafter – has made them even richer while the rest suffers.
After the breakout of the crisis, an inventive journalist called Goldman Sachs “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity”. He might as well have been describing Li’s dominance of our economy with “its blood funnel … jamming into anything that smells like money”.
More than anyone, Li and Cheung Kong helped commodify flat spaces into the shoe boxes that many people call homes – with all their attendant miseries.
Li has denied he is withdrawing from the mainland, and has said Hong Kong is his home. If more of his local assets and businesses are sold, they may make more room for fair competition. More likely, though, other alpha-dominant companies will take over, the ones with mainland state connections.
Sometimes, it’s better the devil you know.