OPINION: Despite a Shady Record, Hong Kong's Business 'Superman' Retires to Adulation

OPINION: Despite a Shady Record, Hong Kong's Business 'Superman' Retires to Adulation
Photo credit: Reuters/達志影像

What you need to know

A reflection on the less outstanding elements of Li Ka-shing's track record as the Hong Kong business magnate retires.

This was Hong Kong-style capitalism at its very best.

For most of Hong Kong, the rest of the world, as well as mainstream media, he is a business "Superman." He came from a humble background – a teacher’s son born in Chaozhou in China’s Guangdong Province and a factory worker at the tender age of 13 – but went on to built a worldwide business empire. He provided employment opportunities for some 300,000 people in 50 countries and contributed to the world economy like few others.

And now, at 89 years young, he’s calling it a career and leaving the business empire he’s built in the capable hands of his son, Victor.

Few people dare to criticize Li Ka-shing (李嘉誠), a former chairman of the board of the sprawling multinational conglomerate CK Hutchison Holdings, because of the extent of his wealth and influence. After all, he is Asia’s second-richest man, and is even a knighted peer of the UK realm.

So on the day he announced his retirement, few pointed out that his business empire has enjoyed monopoly status in Hong Kong, or that he has held the Hong Kong government to ransom by threatening to pull his business out on a number of occasions, quickly earning concessions in return.

And then the story goes that when Victor was kidnapped by a gangster two decades ago, "Superman" went as far as wielding his power with then Chinese president Jiang Zemin so that when the suspect was arrested in mainland China, he was slapped with the death penalty, never to return to Hong Kong, despite the alleged crime taking place in Hong Kong. Speculation suggested Li the elder favored the imposition of capital punishment for his son's oppressor, a practice abolished in Hong Kong in 1993.

Not to mention that Shing’s business has reaped huge benefits in Hong Kong over the years, controlling everything from the electricity supply to supermarkets and pharmacies.

But on the day of his retirement, what we got was PR 101. Asia’s richest man was at his most cheerful and flamboyant self, chatting with media, taking pictures and having an all-round great time. The media fell over themselves in a manner similar to Fox’s fawning of Donald Trump, glorifying Hong Kong’s greatest contribution to mankind and capitalism.

Then again, Hong Kong likes unfettered capitalism, much like the rest of the world. Money is king. Freedom is, well, freedom. Every time the U.S.-based right-wing Heritage Foundation names Hong Kong “the world’s freest economy” – now for the 24th straight year – the Hong Kong government simpers.

“Thank you, thank you, we are so ‘free’ because we enjoy our capitalism here, we are so free that rich people always get to rip off the poor, we are so free that our Gini co-efficient is one of the world’s highest and our property prices and overall consumer prices are so high that more than half of people under 30 want to emigrate so that they won’t be ripped off anymore, but they can’t and are stuck here.”

Still, Hong Kong people will always have Shing to look up to. “If only I can be the next Superman and be filthy rich under our capitalist system, which will last forever, even though we’re part of China…”

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Editor: David Green