Li Ka-shing

Narrow nationalism does not help investor confidence

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 September, 2015, 1:24am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 September, 2015, 1:24am

Rarely have the business affairs of one man prompted so much censorious comment in official and social media as Li Ka-shing's decision to unload mainland assets. It reflects changing perceptions of him, from a "superman" investor with the midas touch and a close friend of state leaders to an unpatriotic, profit-taking ingrate.

Mainland media has reported in the past that Li, trading on his name and reputation, reached some cheap land deals with local authorities, ostensibly for development. Rather, according to the reports, he waited for the land value to appreciate before selling it. However, Li's relations with the mainland are more nuanced. He does enjoy a reputation for being able to spot a trend, reflected in this case by cashing in assets and reinvesting in the West even before the authorities acknowledged the mainland economy was slowing down.

Perceptions aside, it is also no secret that the new leaders in Beijing and Hong Kong, where Li has been shifting corporate ties to the Cayman Islands, are much less "tycoon-friendly" than their predecessors. A once-close relationship with Chinese leaders, most notably former president Jiang Zemin during the nineties, has withered under Hu Jintao and current leader Xi Jinping . At the same time, an increasingly nationalist tone of political discourse has done nothing to make China look investor-friendly. We trust that media slurs of ingratitude and unpatriotism do not represent the official view. Li, after all, was among the first to invest in China and is a major donor to charity. Now he wants to move on, and mainlanders should be magnanimous.

The fact that some official media joined in the attack is a further sign of rising nationalist sentiment that casts a shadow over the welcome mat, contrary to what Xi Jinping told his American hosts a few days ago about the door always being open for business. This kind of ganging up is a sign of narrow-mindedness that confuses investor confidence with patriotism.

At the end of the day Li is a businessman who is exercising his right to buy and sell assets. As one commentary conceded, there's no need to worry about investors coming to China as long as it deepens reforms. Indeed, if there is any good to come out of this episode, it is to highlight the need for China to improve its investment climate by pressing on with promised economic reforms, cracking down on collusion and clarifying uncertainty that investors loathe.