Li Ka-shing is perhaps the only ethnic Chinese whose business empire genuinely measures up to the standards of global moguls.
He employs more than 260,000 people in more than 50 jurisdictions.
Thus his 2,000-character response to stern rebukes from the mainland media over the divestment of some of his mainland holdings is by no means a whimsical one.
I believe many words in the statement, jointly issued in the name of his two flagships, CK Hutchison Holdings Ltd. (00001.HK) and Cheung Kong Property Holdings Ltd. (01113.HK), were written by Li himself.
For those interested in Hong Kong’s situation and its political outlook, Li’s words deserve careful study, and one must read between the lines.
These words are from a brilliant business guru who seldom displays his thoughts and emotions in such a straightforward way.
Li noted in the Chinese version that the allegations against him from the mainland party mouthpieces are groundless and have “sent a chill down his spine” but he does not believe that there is “a revival of Cultural Revolution thinking”.
His outspoken remarks indicate that Li is unfazed by the barrage of criticism.
Li’s statement must be put in the context of China’s prevailing political climate.
His initial silence and tardiness in responding to the attacks suggest that having failed to get the media siege toned down through discreet channels and personal connections, Li had to resort to a high-profile statement like this as a last option.
As to whether his relationship with Beijing has turned sour, Li merely stressed his confidence in President Xi Jinping’s ability to lead and that “individual viewpoints expressed in the articles are not in line with the reform sentiments” of the government’s top leaders.
But it’s not difficult to read the hidden message between the lines.
On numerous occasions, Li has highlighted his patriotism.
But this time, rather than engaging in a hackneyed reiteration of his charitable donations to the mainland, Li struck a more personal note.
He said he “grew up amid the turmoil of war — the great tug of war with destiny and the taste of poverty are memories hard to forget” and so it is heartening to witness “the phenomenal growth of China”.
However, the tone is reversed in the following paragraph.
“These false accusations pained him, but he can always find solace in the words of great ancient poets like Su Shi (蘇軾) and Bai Juyi (白居易): ‘Home is where the heart dwells and home is where one’s heart can find peace’.”
There’s not a single word of patriotic sentiment in the entire paragraph.
My interpretation is that if home is where one’s heart finds peace, then Li’s major decisions to leave or to stay, to invest or to divest, basically come down to ensuring his peace of mind.
Besides their right of abode in Hong Kong, Li and the members of his family all have Canadian nationality.
Perhaps for the time being, Hong Kong and Canada are places “where he can find peace”.
Li once noted that more than 70 percent of his investments are clustered in places that enjoy democracy and rule of law.
Patriotic overseas Chinese may be rewarded with certain political perks and convenience in doing business — this was especially the case in the early days of China’s reform and opening up.
For years, Li was a top dignitary in Beijing’s eyes: state leaders in past decades, from Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao, all gave him the red-carpet treatment.
Yet that has apparently ended since Xi took office.
The shrewd Li must know this better than anyone else.
In a free market with rule of law and a level playing ground, a businessman need not be patriotic.
In a country where political docility overrides everything, a businessman is required to sacrifice his business gains and personal interests for the country.
Jack Ma Yun said he wouldn’t hesitate a moment before giving AliPay, his dominant online payment service, to the country for free if he were asked.
The plain truth about running a business in China is that you can never shield it from politics.
Paramount party mouthpiece People’s Daily said in an editorial that while capital flows transcend boundaries, a businessman will always have to keep his motherland in mind.
Global Times, its sister publication, said Li’s image among many people on the mainland has changed from a role model to that of a profiteer.
“Mainlanders need to view the change with a positive attitude; so should Li when he is no longer idolized in the official discourse,” the newspaper concluded.
As I reckon, Li may have to trade political preference and business dominance for peace of mind.
Indeed, many Hongkongers would rather give up all the economic concessions from Beijing – many of which are mutually beneficial, despite the official propaganda, which suggests the benefits are all one-way – if their own freedoms, rule of law and way of life could be preserved.
Li’s empire does not need to rely on Beijing’s magnanimity, as his assets are spread across the globe.
Hongkongers must not sell themselves short or lose confidence either, as Hong Kong is a world city that still boasts an edge over the mainland, be it in our internationalized legal and financial institutions, freedom of speech or a vibrant civil society.
Turning Hong Kong into another Shenzhen or Shanghai can never serve China’s core interests.
What Li has been put through is a vivid lesson to all Hongkongers.
I also hope Beijing can adopt a more accommodating attitude toward the special administrative region.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct. 15.
Translation by Frank Chen
[Chinese version 中文版]
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