Superman retires

Muted mainland reaction as tycoon Li steps down


The dealmaker departs

Hong Kong’s much heralded free market economy loses some of its sparkle when you study the acute concentration of economic power in the hands of a few of its family-run property conglomerates.

That said, there have been signs that the dominance of the territory’s real estate bosses is waning (see WiC342). And there was another end-of-a-generation moment last Friday, when Hong Kong’s richest man Li Ka-shing, announced his retirement as chairman of CK Hutchison.

“The city’s first generation of high-powered billionaires had lifelong friendships with top men north of the border. With ‘Superman’ stepping down and a new style of leader in Xi Jinping, that looks to have changed,” South China Morning Post’s chief editor Tammy Tam wrote in a column.

Li will turn 90 in July but he is still popularly nicknamed after the cartoon character Superman. The moniker made its debut in a cover story in the Far Eastern Economic Review in July 1981, when the businessman was portrayed flying over Hong Kong in superhero garb. At the time China and Britain had just begun talks about Hong Kong’s future beyond 1997. Foreign investors were unsure about their prospects in the colony and Li, with good connections in Beijing and London, emerged as a key dealmaker, snapping up trophy assets such as Hutchison Whampoa, one of the influential British trading houses.

Li’s guanxi in Beijing has shown signs of fraying in recent years and the tycoon started selling down his real estate assets in China and Hong Kong and switching some of his investment focus to Europe (see WiC268).

Following Li’s decision to redomicile CK Hutchison offshore in 2015, state-run media outlets openly called him out for deserting the motherland (see WiC297).

The reactions from mainland China to the news of Li’s retirement have been muted, in part because not even Superman is allowed to steal Xi Jinping’s thunder at the Two Sessions gathering (Li retired the day before Xi’s second term was confirmed).

Xinhua published a 415-word briefing on Li stepping down but the news agency offered no commentary or detailed backgrounder.

This relative indifference was a contrast to the coverage in Hong Kong’s media, which jousted to publish the lengthiest articles on Li’s extraordinary career (local broadcaster TVB also devoted a half-hour programme to him).

Many social media users in mainland China offered their own tributes to a businessman who has long been seen as the epitome of Chinese entrepreneurship. Popular financial writer Wu Xiaobo also rebutted criticisms of Li’s investment strategy on WeChat: “It is totally unreasonable to ask an entrepreneur to give up his business interest [for nationalistic causes], especially if this is about his shareholders’ interest.”

There were many supportive comments under Wu’s article, praising the Guangdong born businessman. “I respect Li a lot. He has been working so hard and he only let go when he is about to turn 90,” was typical of the sentiment.

Although Li has been a prolific philanthropist – donating more than $2.5 billion to charity over the years – others say he didn’t contribute enough to the nation to be remembered as anything more than a successful businessman.

“In mainland China we should not make the same mistake of Hong Kong,” wrote Huang Shen, a financial blogger, referring to the concentration of the former British colony’s wealth in the hands of a few individuals. “If we have too many Li Ka-shings here, China would end up falling into the same trap of high property prices, which suffocates innovation.” However, Huang’s Sina Weibo article – he is followed by more than 1.7 million fans on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter – was soon deleted by state censors.

The jury is still out on the state media’s conclusion regarding Li’s legacy – which on the mainland goes back to 1979 when he was appointed as a director of Citic Group to help drive China’s economic reforms. His company’s exposure to mainland China today mainly comprises of his network of Watsons pharmaceutical outlets (its 3,000th store opened in the Shanghai Super Brand Mall last April).

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