24 October 2016
Li Ka-shing, who backed Henry Tang against CY Leung in Hong Kong's 2012 election, says the city's next leader should be someone who can provide hope to the people, particularly the youth. Photos: Bloomberg, TVB
Li Ka-shing, who backed Henry Tang against CY Leung in Hong Kong's 2012 election, says the city's next leader should be someone who can provide hope to the people, particularly the youth. Photos: Bloomberg, TVB

Decoding Li Ka-shing’s comments on Hong Kong

It’s no secret that tycoon Li Ka-Shing has some misgivings about Leung Chun-Ying, given the fact that the billionaire supported Leung’s rival, Henry Tang, in the 2012 chief executive election.

After Leung took office, Li refrained from any open criticism of the Hong Kong leader, opting to stand with the government on issues such as political reforms and the 2014 Occupy protests. 

That said, the businessman has often expressed concern about growing divisions in society and what they portend for Hong Kong’s future.

In particular, Li suggested that the government must examine why there is growing unrest in the city, especially among the younger citizens.

Though Hong Kong’s richest man didn’t point fingers at anyone, his comments were seen as an indirect rebuke to the Leung administration.  

Now, as the city prepares for the 2017 chief executive election, the tycoon has given fresh hints about his unhappiness with the state of affairs in Hong Kong.

With Beijing yet to make its stand clear on whether it will offer a second term to Leung, Li has signaled that he would prefer a new man at the helm.         

In an interview aired by Bloomberg TV this week, Li shared some thoughts on Hong Kong’s problems and what he is looking for in the city’s next leader.

While it is difficult to say who would win the city’s top job next year, it is important that the leader must “understand Hong Kong and have the ability to fill people with hope,” Li said.

Saying that Hong Kong is facing its toughest times in 20 years, the 87-year-old business tycoon said steps must be taken to counter the rising discontent among the youth.

The government “needs to think about the options made available to the young people,” Li said. “Especially for the young people, you have to give them opportunities and hope.”

The comments are not surprising, given the 2014 Occupy protests and the February 2016 incidents in Mong Kok, when hundreds of youth took to the streets to vent their anger over a host of political and social issues.

While Li did not mention his preference on the city’s next leader, one can infer from his remarks that the tycoon would be happy if Hong Kong sees a change of guard.

A new leader could perhaps steer the territory better through the tough times and also provide hope to the younger generation.

In his first interview with international media in more than three years, Li said Hong Kong needs to address the wealth inequality issue, which is fueling anger in society. 

The government could raise corporate tax rates by one or two percent and use the additional income for education and healthcare spending, said Li, who is the chairman of the CK Hutchison Holdings (00001.HK).

Li’s comments have drawn wide attention, with observers speculating that they may be aimed at sending a message to Beijing as it mulls its options for the 2017 Hong Kong election.

Following a trip by Zhang Dejiang, China’s No. 3 leader, to Hong Kong last month, there is talk that Beijing could soon decide on whether it should pick a new candidate or allow Leung a second term.

During his Hong Kong visit, Zhang met various business and political leaders in the city, including some prominent figures from the democratic camp.

Against this backdrop, Li’s public remarks will no doubt serve as reference points for Beijing as it decides on the options for the 2017 Hong Kong leadership race.

As Hong Kong people feel let down by Leung, it may be time for a new person to take charge of the city’s affairs — that’s the message to the mainland leaders.

Beijing would do well to heed the message, given the dismal approval ratings of Leung.

According to the latest poll conducted by the public opinion program of the University of Hong Kong, the popularity rating of Leung was at 38.2, below the warning line of 45.

His approval rating was 22 percent, while the disapproval rating was 64 percent, giving a net popularity of negative 42 percentage points.

With such a low approval rating, one would assume that Leung might opt out of a second term. 

However, that doesn’t seem to be the case, with reports suggesting that he is continuing to push for another five years in office.

Given this situation, Li’s comments will provide fodder for thought for Beijing. 

Some observers are, meanwhile, speculating that Li could support Financial Secretary John Tsang if the latter throws his hat into the 2017 leadership race.

Li opposes excessive government spending on doles and welfare subsidies, a stand that is also echoed by Tsang but not by Leung.

Hong Kong’s richest man supports higher profits tax to fund education and medical spending, but argues against free lunches for citizens.

During the 2012 election, Li supported Tang until the very end, reflecting his unease with Leung.

Now, his comments on the next chief executive can be seen as a signal that his feelings haven’t changed, or may have in fact hardened.

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EJ Insight writer

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