Hong Kong’s richest man Li Ka-shing breaks habit in refusing to back anyone for chief executive race

Billionaire refused to comment on reports he met Zhang Dejiang in Shenzhen to discuss the election

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 February, 2017, 3:01pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 February, 2017, 11:25pm

Hong Kong’s richest man broke on Sunday with his usual habit of publicly supporting a preferred chief executive candidate, refusing to back any of the four contenders seeking to run in next month’s election.

Li Ka-shing also dismissed allegations that Beijing was meddling in the poll, calling on the public not to believe in the “hearsay” as he believed President Xi Jinping’s determination to ensure “one country, two systems” would not be distorted.

“As a stakeholder, it is understandable for the central government to care about Hong Kong’s system … Being prejudiced and self-centred is irrational and will lead Hong Kong nowhere,” he said.

But the tycoon declined to comment on reports that he met a state leader earlier this month to discuss the central government’s preference.

Li, chairman of CK Hutchison Holdings, which has around 10 votes on the 1,194-member Election Committee, did give two criteria for the city’s next leader to meet, saying he or she should implement “one country, two systems” and uphold the rule of law.

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Li’s remarks suggested the tycoon might not necessarily back front runner Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, observers suggested, even though the former chief secretary is perceived as Beijing’s choice.

“Before Carrie’s announcement to run , I have already said I would not nominate anyone as the others are all my close friends, such as [retired judge] Woo Kwok-hing, [New People’s Party lawmaker] Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee and [former financial secretary] John Tsang Chun-wah,” he said.

“But I would definitely cast my vote.”

That was because the nominations are made public, he said, and he did not want to throw his weight behind one candidate before the final vote.

“You would offend people by nominating [a specific candidate] but no one would know who I voted for [in the secret ballot],” he said.

All hopefuls need 150 nominations from committee members to get on the ballot for the March 26 election. They will then need 601 votes, from the same committee in a secret ballot, to win.

Li said the four current hopefuls would all adhere to his two principles if elected.

Speaking after an event held by his charity, the Li Ka-shing Foundation, the tycoon declined to say whether he had met National People’s Congress chairman Zhang Dejiang earlier this month to discuss the election.

As the Post reported earlier this month, Zhang told pro-establishment figures in Shenzhen, including Li, that Lam was Beijing’s preferred candidate.

But Li dismissed a question about the meeting, saying: “It was my private matter and I will not address that.”

Li backed eventual 2002 and 2007 winners Tung Chee-hwa and Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. But he backed Henry Tang Ying-yen, who was beaten by Leung Chun-ying, in 2012.

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When asked if his refusal to back anyone this year stemmed from his fear of backing another loser, Li cited his unaltered support for Tang, even though he knew he would not win.

Li’s elder son, Victor Li Tzar-kuoi, threw his weight behind Lam alongside other members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference last week, while his younger son Richard Li Tzar-kai has yet to reveal his stance.

“Victor and Richard are both above 50 now. They will make their own decisions,” their father said.

In a subsequent written reply to the press, Li took answered a few more questions, such as his take on Lam being labelled “CY2.0”, or another Leung Chun-ying.

He said it was unfair for people to label Lam this way, adding such politicised and “childish” labels were not good for the city.

Political scientist Dr Chung Kim-wah of Polytechnic University said he thought Li was implying he might not dance to Beijing’s tune in casting his vote .

“Li has somehow reflected the thinking of the business bloc given his extensive network,” Chung said. “There could be a discrepancy between the number of nominations and votes the aspirants eventually bag.”

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Tsang, the popular underdog, said on Sunday he had made a lot of friends in the business sector in the past nine years as finance chief.

“I hope they will vote for me, or even nominate me, but I understand everyone has their own considerations,” he said.

While Lam said she did not have any “special relationship” with Li and that every voter should pick the next chief executive freely and independently, Woo said committee members should not waste their votes although he understood Li’s consideration.

Ip said: “Mr Li already sent me a polite letter saying that he would not nominate anyone, as all three candidates are friends. I have no idea whether Mr Li’s ‘friends’ include Lam.”