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Li Ka-shing’s retirement marks the end of an era for Hong Kong tycoons – and how they deal with Beijing

The city’s first generation of high-powered billionaires had lifelong friendships with top men north of the border. With ‘Superman’ stepping down and a new style of leader in Xi Jinping, that looks to have changed

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 March, 2018, 2:53pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 March, 2018, 7:53pm

“If I had the right to vote, I would surely vote for President Xi” – that was how Hong Kong’s richest man responded to China’s recent constitutional changes, including the one lifting the two-term limit on the presidency, starting with that of Xi Jinping.

Li Ka-shing, who will be 90 in July, announced his retirement on Friday. As always, the annual results meeting of his listed companies drew questions about politics as well as business, but even more so this time, given that it could have been his last such press conference.

No question seemed too hard for the tycoon known as “Superman”. Having spent seven decades building up his business empire, Li knows all too well how politics and economics are unavoidably intertwined. So he chose to be frank and honest about his political views. 

The fact is, a man of his means and influence simply cannot ignore politics. A case in point is how much weight his opinion carries when he supports any candidate for chief executive.

No surprise, then, that there have been so many controversies regarding his investment strategies on the mainland all these years. 

It has been common for Hong Kong’s billionaires to cultivate close personal relations with China’s top leaders. The scale of their investments on the mainland was seen as a mark of patriotism, especially during the early years when the country was opening up and badly needed overseas investors. 

Li was among the first group of Hong Kong’s super-rich who won Beijing’s trust and in return were gradually able to reap the rewards of investing in the huge mainland market.

There is no doubt about Li’s contribution to the country and how much appreciation he has received from the top, but there are different ways to maintain relations in different times. 

Li had an impressive list of peers at the time: Henry Fok Ying-tung, Beijing’s confidante who was elevated to the post of vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference; Y.K. Pao, “shipping king” and founder of Hong Kong’s World-Wide Shipping Group; Pao’s son-in-law Peter Woo Kwong-ching, former chairman of Wharf Group and one of the four candidates to become the city’s first chief executive after the 1997 handover; and Cha Chi-ming, the well-known industrialist and philanthropist who donated much to the country’s aerospace science development and other projects, and one of whose sons, Payson, was once the boss of the ill-fated Asia Television. 

The list goes on, but these were among the most prominent tycoons who forged lifelong friendships with top leaders such as Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.

Li can count himself fortunate to have lived longer than his old friends. “I’m very grateful to be healthy,” he said.

There is no doubt about Li’s contribution to the country and how much appreciation he has received from the top, but there are different ways to maintain relations in different times. 

One subtle but noticeable change over the years is Xi has not held one-on-one meetings with Li as his predecessors did. But when the president was in town last July for the 20th anniversary of the city’s return to Chinese rule, Xi seemed to reserve the longest handshake for Li during a group meeting with representatives from all sectors. 

With Li taking a back seat and a strong leader with a new style in Beijing, the way of doing business up north naturally changes. 

Li’s retirement is seen as signalling the end of an era, and of the business model of the first generation of Hong Kong tycoons. It also marks the end of the era of business heavyweights enjoying close personal relationships with Chinese leaders, who are now more sensitive to public perceptions of cosy ties with tycoons.

Victor Li finally emerges from the shadow of his father Li Ka-shing

“When spring comes, ducks are the first to feel the warmth of the river,” the old Chinese saying goes. Superman Li, also dubbed the “wise man”, knows full well that following the rules of business, instead of relying on relationships, is sustainable on the mainland now. So his empire’s investment strategies must be practical. 

He is right to rebut those who have accused him of “abandoning the motherland” as ignoramuses “without a basic knowledge of economics”.

“We [always] buy this or sell that,” was how he broke it down for them. Indeed, that is business.