Li Ka-shing’s Indignation

李嘉诚

What on earth can agitate the steely Superman? It turns out all it takes is an article written by some dubious “researcher” from a Chinese institute.

On Sept 29, the 87-year-old Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing, nicknamed “Superman Li”, broke his cool by releasing to the Chinese media a statement in response to a controversy that had been raising eyebrows all over the country in the past two weeks. It started with an article titled “Don’t Let Li Ka-shing Run Away” that appeared on the WeChat platform of a major think tank run by the state-owned news agency Xinhua. In that article, author Luo Tianhao accused Li of being ungrateful and opportunistic by cashing out his real estate properties in mainland China and moving investments to Europe. It then moved on to instruct Li to do three things, with a tone at once condescending and menacing: invest in lower profit industries in mainland China; hold on to “symbolic” properties in the mainland and Hong Kong as a token of his loyalty and confidence; do more philanthropy. The author also spent a good portion of the article belittling Hong Kong’s business tycoons and highlighting their relative “dispensability” compared to the early days of China’s reform and opening.

As many Chinese observers have pointed out, the significance of that particular article is probably overblown by its somewhat unfortunate pick-up by the Xinhua-affiliated think tank. Likely what happened was that some inexperienced editor in charge of its WeChat account innocently carried it without realizing the potential explosiveness of its content. Commentators also dug out the bogus nature of the author’s numerous self-claimed titles, revealing that he was nothing but an aggressive self-promoter.

In a society where the ruling elites are accustomed to communicate in codes and hide political intentions behind cryptography, the probability of the signal-hungry public to misread or over-interpret things runs high. But even if this is a classic example of overreaction to an essentially trivial piece of opinion, the waves it stirred up and the fact that people so naturally associated it with some sort of high-level intention speaks to a deep-rooted concern that had been fermenting over this past summer.

Economists were among the first to cry foul of the mentality embodied in the article. They dubbed it “anti-market” and maintained that Li Ka-shing’ accumulation of wealth in the mainland was essentially a market phenomenon and should be encouraged. Applying moral judgments on market transactions (including cashing out) is going to affect the business community’s confidence in the system itself. The same sentiment also defines the reaction to the government’s botched effort to rescue a sliding stock market in the summer. Instead of “letting the market play a decisive role”, the authority displayed an assortment of administrative weaponry: suspension of IPOs, banning short selling and arresting a journalist whose exclusive report about the possible wrapping-up of governmental rescue efforts sent the market downward again. In both the Li Ka-shing and the stock market cases, observers sense the ominous encroachment of the logic of power into the sanctity of the marketplace, the former features demagogy, mass mobilization and coercion, while the latter run under the principles of contractual spirit, mutual consent and free will.  People satirically refer to the authority’s stop-running-away mindset as “the foundation of this strong nation” and a “panacea” to every conceivable problem the country faces.

But as business writer Wu Xiaobo writes, in the case of Li Ka-shing, as in many Hong Kong tycoons of his generation, the line between politics and market is never that clear-cut. He even considers Li the symbol of a business philosophy that treasures and embraces the partnership with an ascending power. By supplying the power with much needed capital and support, Li got handsome returns from his investment and therefore became the “biggest winner of China’s transition.”

That ambivalent relationship with power becomes an original sin that Li’s critics exploit. The author of the original article argues that since real estate development in China is almost impossible without some forms of governmental “benevolence”, Li’s cashing out is no less than an equivalence of betrayal. His status as the richest Chinese man on earth (only recently taken over by Wanda Group’s Wang Jianlin) also means that every move he takes carries a symbolic meaning beyond the transaction itself. As early as 2013, when Li’s initial shift of his portfolio to outside mainland China and Hong Kong drew public attention, Wang Shi, president of one of China’s largest real estate developers, sent out a Weibo post reminding everyone: “The very shrewd Mr. Li Ka-shing is selling properties in Beijing and Shanghai. This is a signal. Be careful!” And when China’s economic troubles make business transactions, be it stocks or real estate properties, an issue of allegiance, Li finds himself caught in a spot utterly uncomfortable.

It is particularly unfortunate that Li, a man who builds his life time of business career on optimally timed transactions on a global scale and an extreme prudence in cash flow management, would have to respond to morally charged allegations of ingratitude and disloyalty. Li’s Chinese biographer, Xu Zhiyuan, once compared Li with the likes of John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Bill Gates and Akio Morita, all of whom were short-listed for the London Times’s 1999 award of the “Entrepreneur of the Millennium.” Unlike his great peers who had either enjoyed large home markets or generous government support, Li launched his business from a tiny free port city. From the very beginning he had to face the global market or perish, and up until this point his global portfolio still stands out among Chinese businesses.

His relationship with mainland China has also been complicated. Originally coming from Guangdong province, he spent a good part of his adolescent years sending back money to his mother and siblings who remained in the mainland while he struggled to make ends meet in Hong Kong, where his father died abruptly of tuberculosis and he himself almost died of the same disease. It was this attachment to his hometown that brought him back in the 1980s to set up the first university in the region of Chaoshan, so that kids from the same modest roots as his could receive first-class education. A 2013 profile of Li in a Chinese magazine also took note of his interactions with then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Even though Deng individually received Li twice in 1986 and 1990, an absolute privilege, it was until after Deng’s 1992 speech in Guangdong that finally inject confidence in Li of China’s future. As a perfect example of his signature prudence, Li only started large scale investment in the mainland after that point, which sets him apart from Hong Kong’s other pro-Beijing tycoons who got into the game much earlier.

Xu, his biographer, noticed a sort of “unsophisticated patriotism” in Li. “His generation has experienced violent turbulence (in modern Chinese history). They have a special craving for a wealthy and strong China, and a deep affection for its traditional culture. For them, China is not only just a market. It’s an identity and a place where they can help change.”

This probably explains the tone of Li’s response to the article which sounds hurt and indignant. It is already quite unusual for the old man, who largely stays out of the spotlight, to make such a statement to begin with. The brief press release to the Chinese media contains a distinct personal touch of Li Ka-shing. In response to allegations of him being “unpatriotic”, he listed contributions to the mainland through his multi-billion dollar foundation, in particular the Shantou University endeavor which he dedicated more than a quarter of a century of his time. He quoted Su Shi, the poet from a thousand years ago, to describe his own sense of belonging: “Where my heart finds its inner peace, I call it my homeland.”

He strikes back at the article as “chilling” and representing a “cultural revolution mindset.” Yet while he defends his business decisions as based on a sound and common-sensical logic detached from political considerations, he also makes a gesture that shows his acute sense of his place: “We should not let this meaningless fight over words to become the focus and a distraction from the important message that President Xi tries to send through his state visit to the United States.” The old man, the second richest Chinese on this planet and a self-described “compassionate lion”, is following the thousand-year-old tradition of the Chinese merchant class: showing his subordination to his King.

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