No names, but Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing drops heavy hint he backs Carrie Lam as next leader

City’s richest man highlights need for good ties with Beijing as John Tsang extends lead over former chief secretary in University of Hong Kong poll

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 March, 2017, 11:44pm
UPDATED : Monday, 27 March, 2017, 6:15pm

Hong Kong’s richest man, Li Ka-shing, broke his silence on Wednesday to express support for leading chief executive contender Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor without naming her, saying he would vote for a candidate trusted by Beijing.

The remarks by the chairman of CK Hutchison Holdings came a week after his younger son Richard Li Tzar-kai made a similar endorsement and just four days before the 1,194 members of the Election Committee choose the next leader.

But Li’s pick appears to be at odds with mainstream opinion in the city, as the latest poll conducted by the University of Hong Kong found the rating for underdog John Tsang Chun-wah for the first time exceeding 50 per cent. It had him ahead of Lam by 20 percentage points.

“Popularity certainly is important, but maintaining a good working relationship with the central government is also crucial,” said Li when he was asked about the chief executive race in a CK Hutchison Holdings press conference on Wednesday.

While Li did not say Lam’s name throughout the hour-long conference, his reference was clear as the former chief secretary is seen as Beijing’s favoured candidate.

“Hong Kong faces a number of problems today, such as the housing problem. If the chief executive has a better working relationship and cooperation with the central government, it will create miracles for Hong Kong and reduce a lot of unnecessary disputes,” Li said, pledging to vote for the contender trusted by Beijing.

When asked which was more important –the chief executive’s relationship with Beijing or with Hongkongers – Li opted for the former and said he had to pick the “lesser of two evils”.

The tycoon remained optimistic that the split in the city could be healed even if the unpopular candidate won the race.

“In ancient Chinese mythology, there was a goddess who patched the sky with coloured stones. I believe that many things can be achieved through people’s efforts,” he said, referring to the fable of Nu Wa.

Many issues could be resolved through mutual trust and good communication, Li said as he called on the new chief executive to be more receptive to different opinions.

Li had refused to state his preference on the chief executive election last month, saying he would break with his usual habit of nominating an aspirant for fear of offending people.

His stance fuelled speculation that the tycoon might not necessarily back Lam.

But his younger son Richard last week suddenly declared his endorsement of Lam in an interview with three Chinese-language newspapers, in which he said her leadership credentials would keep the city stable in times of turbulence around the world.

His elder son, Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference delegate Victor Li Tzar-kuoi, nominated Lam.

A source with knowledge of the matter had earlier told the Post that National People’s Congress chairman Zhang Dejianghad persuaded Li and his two sons to vote for Lam last month.

Li Ka-shing refused on Wednesday to confirm the reported meeting but stressed he was not under any pressure to make such a decision.

Candidate John Tsang said he agreed with Li that the next chief executive should be someone who could work with Beijing and would be trusted by it.

“Mr Li is a man of wisdom, and he would make the right decision,” Tsang said, adding: “I have been a principal official since 1999 ... I am sure that the central government trusts me.”

The third candidate, Woo Kwok-hing, said he was confident he could communicate well with Beijing.

Li, who will turn 90 next year, became emotional at the press conference as he talked about the city’s waning competitiveness.

“I love Hong Kong ... We used to be proud of Hong Kong but today our GDP has slumped and it only accounts for 2 per cent of China’s. Why can’t we do better?” he said.

He went on to criticise pan-democrats for blocking the Beijing-decreed political reform proposal in 2015.

“We could have had one person, one vote offered by the central government ... but that was sabotaged,” he said, adding the culprits were seldom blamed for that.

Li later denied he had cried, saying he had flu.

Additional reporting by Sandy Li and Jennifer Li