Li Ka-shing warns Hong Kong is a 'spoilt child' set on a dangerous path
Asia's richest man, Li Ka-shing, has warned that Hong Kong is like "a spoilt child" and said the city was headed down a dangerous path of populism.
If the trend was not stopped, the city would have gone "totally wrong" in as little as five years.
In his second interview with a major mainland news outlet since November, Li advised the city's government to invest more in innovation and technology to improve competitiveness, and not to focus solely on poverty relief.
The chairman of Cheung Kong (Holdings) and Hutchison Whampoa, who is ranked 20th in Forbes magazine's list of the world's super-rich this year, told online news service Caixin.com: "My family was poor and there was a time when we were left completely destitute. I will never forget that. I very much understand what it is like when you need to worry about making ends meet every day.
"And it is also natural that such a situation gives rise to populism. But the important point is that society should find ways to resolve problems and not get stuck in a state of anger."
He said Singapore had been outpacing Hong Kong in recent years - without the advantage of having mainland China as its hinterland. "Singapore is congenitally deficient while Hong Kong is a spoilt child. Populism is rising in Hong Kong, and if this goes on, the city would look totally wrong in five to six years."
He blamed politicians for the rise of populism, criticising them for taking advantage of social problems as a "platform to get votes and power".
Poverty relief was at the heart of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's policy address in January, but the tycoon said: "Helping the poor cannot solve the problems of declining competitiveness."
Instead, Li said, the city should model itself on Singapore by investing in innovation and technology. "I think Hong Kong people need a greater sense of urgency. Although this argument might perhaps seem disquieting, one must have the right attitude about change while moving forward, and not develop a falsely confined mindset thanks to living in a generally affluent place for a long time," he added. "Ignoring the potential and advantages of other places only makes one's thinking unnecessarily rigid."
In November, Li spoke to the Guangzhou-based Nanfang Media Group, revealing details about the kidnapping of his elder son, Victor Li Tzar-kuoi, by crime king "Big Spender" Cheung Tze-keung 18 years ago.
His son, now 49, was released and Cheung was executed in 1998 after telling his trial that he had received a HK$1.38 billion ransom from the tycoon.
In the November interview, Li also indicated his discontent with Leung's administration, saying: "Hong Kong cannot go down the path of 'rule of man'." The phrase is generally taken to mean the absence of rule of law and a society where one person or group rules arbitrarily.
In 2012, Li told Forbes he was prepared to hand over his empire to Victor Li, but had no immediate plans to step down.
Dr Li Kui-wai, an economist at City University, said it might be too simplistic to blame populism for Hong Kong's declining competitiveness or social problems.
"Hong Kong people are used to making quick money by speculating in, say, property," he said. "Even Mr Li Ka-shing makes a lot of money here by selling flats. He does not seem to have invested a lot in Hong Kong in recent years."
In the Caixin.com interview, Li said his conglomerates would continue investing in Hong Kong but their overseas investments were growing more rapidly because "it took time to digest" Hong Kong government policies.
Li said they had been expanding overseas since 1980 because he had noticed the limited growth prospects in Hong Kong.
The group had become one of the biggest investors in countries such as Canada, Britain, Australia, the Netherlands, Italy, Sweden and Austria, he added.
"Many governments understand that maintaining a stable economic environment is very important for investors, as any successful business will … help to improve the country's long-term prosperity," he said.