Li Ka-shing

It is doubtful we will ever see a tycoon like Li Ka-shing again

The city’s richest man, who has just retired as head of his listed companies, is a self-made tycoon who built an empire that spans the world. His retirement is a reminder of an era marked by close ties between Hong Kong billionaires and mainland leaders. But times have changed

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 March, 2018, 8:45am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 March, 2018, 8:45am

Li Ka-shing remains the most famous living Hongkonger. Evidence of that was the international coverage of his retirement at 89 as head of his listed companies. It is doubtful there will ever be another self-made tycoon quite like the city’s richest man, who built an empire woven into the fabric of Hong Kong life that spans the world.

The nickname “superman” bestowed at the peak of hero worship for his business and investment prowess endures far beyond Hong Kong. China remains grateful for his contribution during the early years of the country’s opening up when it badly needed overseas investors. Indeed, Li’s retirement is a reminder of an era marked by close ties that he and his generation of Hong Kong billionaires had with mainland leaders. The times have changed. China has emerged as a global economic power in its own right. Government-tycoon ties have become more sensitive to the perception of cosy relations. 

With changing times came new business strategies. Li’s patriotism was questioned by nationalist critics in the mainland as he cashed in property assets and reinvested abroad. In fact it was part of an ongoing diversification out of property into infrastructure, energy utilities, hi-tech and the new economy as he consolidated a vast empire ahead of a long-planned handover to his eldest son.

Times have changed at home, too, where he went from hero to a controversial figure with unparalleled influence over sectors of Hong Kong’s economy, from property to supermarkets to power supply to telecommunications. Recently, his CK Asset Holdings sold his stake in The Center  in Central for a record HK$40.2 billion, signalling further diversification out of real estate.

As the city’s wealth gap widens and people perceive that life is getting more difficult and expensive it is easy for them to blame Li because he is seen to profit from rising prices. Those in the younger generation have mixed feelings. They do not see any prospect of emulating Li’s rags-to-riches story because of a perceived lack of upward mobility. They may have a point. One of Li’s philanthropic interests is in developing the potential of talent through education. He told recent graduates at Shantou University, a beneficiary of the Li Ka Shing Foundation, that young people were doomed to fail if they put all their hope in natural gifts or family wealth. Li has pledged HK$8 billion to the university in east Guangdong since 1981.

In the eyes of investors, the years have not wearied him. His words still have the potential to move markets and he remains a senior adviser to his listed companies. Li’s career has been marked by good timing, such as his exit from mainland assets ahead of a downturn. He remains ahead of the times, having executed a transparent succession plan that reassures markets.