Shih Wing-ching: From real estate to the fourth estate

Property tycoon Shih Wing-ching wrong-footed sceptics when he launched his newspaper, but then he's never been one to follow the herd

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2016, 2:38pm

"I am not the kind of person who swims with the tide," says outspoken businessman and founder of Centaline Group Shih Wing-ching, who has found himself in the media spotlight recently for a reason he says is spurious - claims that he has reversed his allegiance to the government because of a change in the political climate.

"In the past, the media liked to label me a fan of [Chief Executive] Mr Leung Chun-ying. Now, they say I am becoming anti-Leung," says Shih. "It is easy [for the media] to label someone as such and such, but it will not make your readers smarter."

It all started with a high-profile protest against the government's property market cooling measures last month, in which Shih led some 20,000 property agents who took to the streets and threatened to camp outside the chief executive's office if the measures, which hit their business hard, were not dropped.

"I am not anti-government, but I would certainly say No to the government if it has done something wrong," Shih says, referring to the government's attempts to rein in speculation in the property market.

"[If] you try to stabilise the residential market, that's fine. But the measures hit the office and shop market as well, and that's no good for the economy. You are discouraging people from investing," he says.

Recent media reports about Shih's attempt to offload a big chunk of his property holdings - including 19 commercial shop lots and office units - have also fuelled speculation that Shih has lost confidence in Leung Chun-ying's administration and is preparing to quit the local market.

Shih laughs off the media speculation, saying that some media outlets have tried to politicise everything they can think of to suit their own political agenda.

"It has been known to many that I have been offloading properties since the market turned sluggish. It is not news," says Shih, adding that what he is selling represents slightly more than half of his investment portfolio.

A heavyweight in the property market, Shih surprised many by turning his attention to the media sector in 2005. When few were optimistic about the industry, he spent around HK$100 million of his savings and launched free newspaper am730, which has a circulation of about 400,000 copies a day.

"We seem to be in a time of confrontation - if you are not with me, you are my enemy. I believe it is more important than ever that readers should develop an independent mind instead of just following what others or the media say," says Shih.

"I am not suggesting that media should not take sides on political issues. They should, however, defend or explain their stance in editorials, but not incorporate hidden political agendas into news stories."

Yet he admits that am730 doesn't always manage that.

"Of course I have talked with senior management about this," he says. "But sometimes the words just don't reach the frontline staff, or they get overlooked."

Last month, Shih was attacked in his car on the way to work. He was driving from his Kowloon Tong home to his Centaline office in Central in the morning of July 30 when two men in a car intercepted him on Chui Yu Road in Tai Kok Tsui. The pair, each holding a hammer, approached his vehicle and smashed one of its windows. Shih managed to reverse his car and escape without injury.

The incident was quickly linked by some observers with his political stance. No one has been arrested so far.

Born in Shanghai in 1949, Shih came to settle in Hong Kong with his family at the age of three.

A self-taught Marxist, he spent his youth in the city protesting against the British colonial rule. After spending a few years in secondary school, he became an unlicensed teacher at a leftist evening school for workers.

In 1978, his disillusionment with the Cultural Revolution prompted him to found the Centaline Property Agency, with an initial investment of HK$5,000 and another HK$5,000 from a friend.

Centaline is ubiquitous in Hong Kong and is also well established on the mainland. It became Hong Kong's biggest property agent in 2001 when it acquired Ricacorp Properties.

Centaline has about 30,000 employees working in Hong Kong and around 30 cities on the mainland.

After making a fortune in property, Shih turned to philanthropy, putting into practice what he describes as his "Marxist-libertarian" philosophy - mixing a Marxist's advocacy of social equality with a libertarian's emphasis on small government and private ownership.

In 2008, Shih donated all his shares in Centaline to the Shih Wing Ching foundation, which he set up in 1994 to help Hong Kong's poor. The foundation also focuses on projects to boost the productivity and livelihoods of rural villagers on the mainland.

Shih says his charity drive is part of a lifetime goal to correct one of the world's biggest problems - wealth inequality.

In 2011, he set up the am730 Startup Fund to support promising ideas for small business.

"I am a man of action. I am concerned about social affairs," says Shih. "I have taken part in political protests in the past, like the anti-globalisation march during the [2005] World Trade Organisation conference in Hong Kong."

So, he adds, it should not have surprised anyone when he led realtors in last month's rally.


Shih Wing-ching

Age 64

1962-67 New Method College

1968-76 Teacher at a workers' night school
1976-78 Messenger at the Hsin Cheong construction group
1978 Founded Centaline Property Agency

The Shih Wing Ching Foundation