'King' Arthur Li tipped as Hong Kong's next chief executive

The Executive Councillor's legend has never faded despite his retreat from the spotlight; now he is up for consideration for the city's top job

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 February, 2015, 10:11pm
UPDATED : Monday, 23 February, 2015, 4:19am

Professor Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, the man nicknamed King Arthur for his high-handed manner, is being touted as a potential candidate for the next chief executive election in 2017.

If one of the attributes for the role is being able to handle controversy, then he qualifies with distinction.

His name was put forward by Lam Tai-fai, lawmaker for one of the two industrial functional constituencies, and it marks the second time he's been identified as a contender for the top job.

Li, 69, comes from a distinguished family that has been referred to as Hong Kong's version of the Kennedys, the American political dynasty.

His father was a member of the Executive Council - the government's top decision-making body - as was Arthur Li and his older brother David Li Kwok-po, who is the chairman of the Bank of East Asia.

One of their uncles was the late Simon Li Fook-sean, the top judge who was one of the four candidates vying to be Hong Kong's first chief executive in 1997. One cousin, Andrew Li Kwok-nang, is a former chief justice of Hong Kong; another, Gladys Li, is a prominent barrister and a founding member of the Civic Party.

After retreating from the political limelight in 2007, Li's appointment in 2012 as a non-official member of Exco by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying came as a surprise. On top of that post, he has just been appointed chairman of the government's Council for Sustainable Development for the next two years.

His last stint in politics, as the secretary for education and manpower no less, ended with an inquiry finding him not guilty of interfering in the Institute of Education's autonomy.

Li was born in Hong Kong in 1945 and trained in medicine at Cambridge University in Britain, becoming a specialist in the hepatobiliary system - the liver, pancreas, bile ducts and gallbladder - and gastrointestinal surgery. He returned to Hong Kong in 1982 and became the founding chairman of the Department of Surgery at Chinese University.

Under his leadership, the department rose to become one of the most reputable surgical centres in the world in just one decade. He was promoted to the post of dean of the Medical Faculty in 1992, and four years later Li was appointed the university's fourth vice chancellor.

But his leadership style saw him referred to as "King Arthur" and even "the Tsar". In an interview with the Chinese University's Bulletin, Li admitted he may have given people an impression of being "intimidating" or "overbearing" during his 14 years with the faculty.

He added: "That does not surprise me at all. Those were the days [we were] struggling for survival. If I hadn't been tough enough, the department and faculty would have had a much more difficult time finding their footing … Special circumstances require special handling."

Li insisted he was by nature a "very gentle" person. "I enjoy company and conversation. I'm easy-going and I like working with people," he added.

He left the university in 2002 and at the invitation of the then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa he joined the administration as the education chief. There, Li was alleged to have put pressure on the Institute of Education to merge with Chinese University. He was accused of saying the institute would be "raped" if it refused to agree to a merger.

Education sector legislator and former lecturer at the institute Ip Kin-yuen was a key figure in the controversy. He felt that Li was a man eager to demonstrate his power, noting that he also spoke of a merger between Chinese University and the University of Science and Technology.

When Li was asked by reporters shortly after he took office what he would do if the colleges refused to merge, he replied: "The power is in my hands."

Ip said: "No one had discussed this merger, and a premature proposal of a merger only reflects the strong wishes of the official."

He added: "There wasn't a consensus among the society that the two institutions should merge. Therefore, after the controversy, there wasn't much of a discussion."

Li served just five years in government - and it was during this time that he was first mooted as a possible chief executive - but Ip said the policies rolled out under his reign were still affecting the education sector today, most notably the decision to close schools with low admissions resulting from a falling birth rate.

"Schools are more focused on promoting themselves to attract and enrol more students to avoid closure," Ip said, adding that officials could not be bothered to look at alternative measures to save the schools.

Li's comeback came after he backed Leung for the top job. The next year, however, in 2013, his wife and mother of his two sons, Diana, a Cambridge graduate, died after a long struggle with cancer.

Although he has since maintained a relatively low profile, he still makes headlines with some of his comments.

Ahead of the pro-democracy Occupy movement, when students staged a class boycott last September, Li declared: "Well, who cares? Right? Who cares?

"In fact, if I was a professor and all my students say they're going to boycott class I'll be very happy [because] I'll get a day off. So who cares?" he told reporters.

He has also said it was "paradoxical" for University of Hong Kong law professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting to promote civil disobedience because it was breaking the law.

"As an Exco member, former vice chancellor of Chinese University and former education secretary, he is standing quite far away from ordinary Hongkongers and ordinary students," Ip said.

"[He] needs to get out and talk to those in the frontline."


Arthur Li

Family: Widowed; two sons

Education and training:
St Paul's Co-educational College
Cambridge University
Harvard Medical School

Executive Councillor (2012-present)
Deputy chairman of the Bank of East Asia (present)
Secretary for Education and Manpower (2002-07)
Vice chancellor of Chinese University (1996-2002)
Dean of the Medical Faculty at Chinese University (1992-96)