The problems facing Hong Kong’s seriously rich

Scions of the city’s wealthiest families are now taking charge of multibillion-dollar businesses, but without the clout that their fathers and grandfathers enjoyed

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 May, 2018, 6:37am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 May, 2018, 6:37am

“Superman” Li Ka-shing has announced his retirement and handed over the baton to his eldest son, Victor Li Tzar-kuoi. It has been the same story for the families of other prominent tycoons. Second, third or even fourth-generation offspring are taking over the families’ business empires.

What does this mean for Hong Kong, a city whose fortunes have long been tied to the property market controlled by a handful of families?

Hundreds turn out to say goodbye as ‘Superman Li’ hangs up cape

It’s perhaps the end of the so-called property hegemony – of the local, family-controlled variety anyway. But whether such local capital will be, or has already been, replaced by “red capital”, is a different subject for another column.

Our ageing tycoons used to have a direct line to Beijing, undue influence over the Hong Kong government, and unrivalled advantages from the city’s land sales system that has kept property prices abnormally high.

While flat and land prices are still at stratospheric levels, the political advantages those families once enjoyed have diminished considerably. One simple reason is that their children and grandchildren simply don’t command the same respect from those in charge of the levers of government, in Hong Kong or on the mainland.

Shares in Li Ka-shing’s firms dip as ‘Superman’ hangs up his cape

They also have to operate in a social and political environment that can be openly hostile to their business interests. Long gone are the day when the likes of Li commanded respect and admiration from the public.

Among Victor Li’s peers are Douglas Woo Chun-kuen, of Wheelock; Adrian Cheng Chi-kong, of Chow Tai Fook and New World Development; Adam Kwok Kai-fai and Christopher Kwok Kai-wang, of Sun Hung Kai Properties; and Lee Ka-kit and Lee Ka-shing, of Henderson Land.

Whatever their personal merits and business acumen, none matches the charisma and prestige of their fathers or grandfathers. They also have to contend not so much with resentment against their inherited wealth, but the malaise and hostilities generated by extreme social inequalities and a housing crisis that have undermined the life chances of so many Hong Kong people, yet have disproportionately benefited their families.

The end of an era for Hong Kong tycoons – and their ties with Beijing

Perhaps they can learn something from Lau Ming-wai, son of fugitive tycoon Joseph Lau Luen-hung. The younger Lau is heavily involved in public service, previously as head of the defunct Commission on Youth and now a member of the more powerful Youth Development Commission.

At least he seems aware of the serious challenges his privileged class faces in Hong Kong.