Li Ka-shing: Hong Kong’s Superman won’t hang up his cape

Li Ka-shing © Anthony Kwan/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing had hinted at his desire to retire. Now, caught between the authorities in Beijing and the pro-democracy protests, he finds himself in a tricky situation. 

When Hong Kong’s richest man bumped into a group of children on their way to a dance competition last month, he decided on a whim “to buy them all a present and pay for their trip to the tournament”, says The Daily Telegraph. That sort of “spontaneous gift”, estimated to be worth $120,000, would have been unthinkable in his earlier life. But having built up his conglomerate, CK Asset Holdings, into one of Hong Kong’s major corporate beasts, it was a mere bagatelle for the billionaire known locally as “Superman”.

That certainly isn’t the case with Li Ka-shing’s most recent purchase – the £4.3bn buyout of pub chain Greene King. Several analysts have questioned the tycoon’s willingness to pay a whopping 50% premium for the 220-year-old brewer, wondering if Li’s interest lies less in the resilient UK economy per se, and more in getting as much cash as possible out of Hong Kong, says The Times. The deal adds to a “burgeoning slate of British assets” – including Superdrug, the Three phone network, and stakes in Northumbrian Water and Chelsea Harbour. The Li family has also been extending their control over British electricity infrastructure and ports.

An ambiguous display of loyalty

As one Hong Kong’s leading oligarchs, Li finds himself in a tricky situation because of the protests in Hong Kong, says The Economist. Chinese media have taken to attacking the territory’s tycoons “for insufficient displays of loyalty” – prompting several to show up at a pro-government rally earlier this month. Li himself responded by placing full-page ads in the local press calling for restraint. But his message – which took the form of “some enigmatic quotes from classical literature” – was “ambiguous”. When Li urged readers to “love China, love Hong Kong and love yourself”, it was unclear if the message was aimed at the protestors, the local government or the authorities in Beijing.

Li, at 91, clearly has an eye on protecting his dynasty – one son, Victor, was at the forefront of the Greene King deal; another, Richard, is known in Hong Kong as “Superboy”. And having painstakingly built an empire from nothing, he must surely chafe at having “racked up paper losses of more than $3bn” since the end of July, says the FT. As well as savvy deal-making, keeping a tight rein on finances is a Li trademark.

That’s unsurprising given his tough start in life, says The Daily Telegraph. Born in the Guangdong province in 1928, he was forced to flee to Hong Kong as a child during the second Sino-Japanese war. Once there, Li had to leave school early following his father’s death and took his first job in a plastics factory at the age of 15. “The most terrible experience during my childhood was witnessing my father suffering and ultimately dying of TB,” he told Forbes in 2010. “The burden of poverty and this bitter taste of helplessness…sort of branded on my heart the questions that still drive me. Is it possible to reshape one’s destiny?”

Li achieved that by setting up a business “selling plastic flowers” in his early 20s, “later diversifying into wider plastics manufacturing” and then moving into real estate, shipping and retail. It proved a winning formula: earlier this year his wealth was pegged at around $29bn. Last year, Li indicated his intention to retire after “a storied career as one of the most successful businessmen in the region”, says CNBC. The current troubles may have put the stoppers on that plan. The situation is far too tense and volatile for Li to consider “hanging up his cape” any time soon.