Li Ka-shing warns of threat to Hong Kong's core values
Asia's richest man says core strengths must be defended and reveals his anger at accusations that he was preparing to pull out of the city
Peggy Sito and Gary Cheung
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Li Ka-shing has dismissed rumours he is cashing out of Hong Kong, while also offering his thoughts - and a warning - on the city's political future.
Asia's richest man said suggestions he was pulling out of the city were a "big joke".
But while defending the city's core values, he said: "Hong Kong cannot go down the path of rule of men. Hong Kong has many core values, such as an open and free market and the rule of law, which are not come by easily.
"If there is any mishandling in governance, these [values] would all be gone.
"My relationship with the Hong Kong government and other countries is built on this understanding. It should not be changed when there is reshuffle of individual leaders or officials."
Li, 85, made his comments in an interview with Guangzhou-based Nanfang Media Group that lasted for 21/2 hours.
Li rarely gives media interviews - he hasn't given any one-to-one interviews with the Hong Kong media since the late 1990s.
The tycoon backed Leung Chun-ying's rival, Henry Tang Ying-yen, in last year's election for chief executive and there are widespread rumours he is not on good terms with the current administration.
But asked whether he should "mend fences" with Leung, Li said: "We have no grudge against each other in the first place. Why is there a need to mend fences?"
Speaking in his office in the Cheung Kong Center in Central, he said people read too much into his business dealings.
"In today's globalised economy, this kind of accusation is out of place and unhealthy for business as well as the government," he said.
Some media speculated Li was moving assets abroad after selling three commercial properties - in Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing - for a total of 12.8 billion yuan (HK$16.2 billion).
Hutchison Whampoa was also looking to sell the ParknShop chain, but withdrew the plan after the offers fell short of expectations. Li said such transactions were simply good business.
"[People] accuse me wrongly, and I'm not happy. Today I'm going to hit back. I will present figures and facts and they can't argue with that."
He said: "The gross income of Cheung Kong and Hutchison was about HK$430 billion last year. The capital invested in the two overseas infrastructural projects this year was only HK$8 billion, accounting for less than 2 per cent.
"And this year we invested HK$4 billion in Hong Kong's container port. How can Cheung Kong and Hutchison be said to be pulling out capital? It's Arabian Nights. It's such a big joke."
He added: "Sell high and buy low is normal business behaviour … I have done business internationally for more than 30 years.
"This is the first time I'm hearing [such accusations] … Now it [the criticism] has been extended to the mainland as well.
"We have investments in 52 countries in various businesses, including property. We have sold assets in different countries, in some cases making a profit of more than HK$100 billion.
"People there didn't say that I am pulling out."
Li seemed to be particularly upset by the notion of so-called "property hegemony" - a phrase coined to describe how property tycoons made their fortune through a network which is carefully crafted to enable them to control the city.
The tycoon also dismissed this suggestion as a joke and said his companies were making "much more" in other countries than in Hong Kong.
He claimed there was an "unhealthy trend [of making unfair criticism]" in Hong Kong, which often put officials and public figures in a difficult position.
"It would result in lose-lose situation for both the government and the community. I breathe a sigh of relief that I didn't join the government because officials have to balance the interests of various stakeholders."
Yet he also said, tongue-in-cheek: "If I could choose [a career] again, I'd probably go into politics." Li said his main loyalty was to his shareholders.
"I'm not a clever person … I'm not omnipotent. I can't predict changes in politics nor can I influence politics. What I can do is use my intelligence to make decisions which are favourable for our shareholders."
When asked how to alleviate the gap between the rich and the poor, he said a "free lunch" approach was not the solution.
"The only solution lies in providing a good education for our young generation. It would be wrong if the government only targets those who are competent, rather than resolving the problem of lack of upward mobility."
Li also said that while he had no thoughts of retiring yet, plans were in place. "I have prepared well for retirement. My eldest son, Victor, [Li Tzar-kuoi] can take the helm anytime," he said.
The thoughts of Li Ka-shing
Hong Kong has many core values, such as an open and free market and the rule of law - which are not come by easily … If there is any mishandling in governance, these [values] would be all gone
[When making investments, I] must opt for countries that have fair laws ... The world's investment chances and choices are too overwhelming for us; the group can choose environments that have the rule of law and fair policies to invest in
Buying low and selling high is a normal commercial activity. All over the world, we are never criticised for pulling out capital - except in Hong Kong, where the never-ending rumours are regrettable
I have a deep love for the country and the people. My home is in Hong Kong. For me, Cheung Kong and Hutchison are based in Hong Kong; I absolutely will never move their domiciles
To gain fame means paying a price for easily attracting criticism … The larger the portion of the investments are in a particular place, the higher the chance [one] gets criticised [there]
I do not fear death. If I were a lamp, I could light up a road, with my still-alive foundation, which can only be destroyed politically
If I am to write an epitaph, I will select two phrases that back my will to fight every day: build up self; go after selflessness.
Sources: Nanfang Media Group / Cheung Kong Holdings