China's Trusted Adviser Is Billionaire Tycoon
HONG KONG — In Chinese corridors of power, he is regarded as a close friend of supreme leader Deng Xiaoping and a major player in recently rejuvenated China.
From the alleyways of Beijing to the streets of Taipei, his name is a household word symbolizing the ultimate Chinese rags to riches story.
In Hong Kong, he is known simply as Superman. For many here, billionaire Li Ka-shing, one of the richest men on the planet, is also a metaphor for China's newfound strength on the world stage.
In this British enclave, hardly a day goes by without each of Hong Kong's 6 million residents contributing in some way to Mr. Li's wealth.
On Hong Kong island, everything from turning on a light to eating a meal, from watching satellite television broadcasts to buying medicine, is likely to add to the coffers of Li's business empire.
And Li's economic might, like his political ties, is spreading web-like throughout the Chinese mainland and beyond.
By some analysts' accounts, Li Ka-shing is already the most powerful person in Hong Kong.
"The Beijing leadership regards Li Ka-shing as its most trusted adviser on Hong Kong and has given him wide authority over the territory's affairs," says a Chinese intellectual with high-level government contacts.
"Li is much like Deng in his waning years," says the Chinese intellectual. "He prefers to rule from behind a curtain of secrecy through manipulation and puppets."
The Chinese intellectual and other Hong Kong-based analysts say that Li carries more influence than British Gov. Chris Patten, whose reign here ends when the Union Jack is lowered for the last time July1, or Tung Chee Hwa, the shipping magnate set to replace Mr. Patten when China regains sovereignty.
The local press says that Beijing gave Li an absolute veto over the choice of Hong Kong's first post-colonial ruler.
The Nineties, a local magazine, adds that Li approved business partner Mr. Tung as Hong Kong's chief executive during a meeting with Chinese President and Communist Party chief Jiang Zemin nearly a year before the formal "election" process even began.
"The party leadership knows that Hong Kong is a global finance center and China's economic capital," says the Chinese intellectual. "Beijing therefore wanted a businessman to head Hong Kong when Britain withdrew."
While the Western media have covered Hong Kong's transition to Chinese rule largely as a "1997 phenomenon," many analysts here say that the takeover, and Li's role in it, actually began long ago. Mr. Deng's twin policies of market reforms and opening communist China to the rest of the world nearly 20 years ago sparked the rapid integration of the Hong Kong and mainland economies.
Li, as the chief representative of Hong Kong's ultra-capitalist society, made his first trip to Beijing and began forming an alliance with the Communist Party patriarch in 1978.
As Deng saw his power expand, so Li saw his wealth multiply in the early 1980s. And as Deng set his sights on Hong Kong's return, and Li on the huge Chinese market, the relationship began to bear fruit.
Deng frequently consulted Li during the Sino-British talks on Hong Kong's return, says the intellectual, and later appointed the tycoon to a group entrusted to draft the territory's Basic Law, or constitution, for post-British rule.
In the history books of the next century, Li is likely to go down as one of the founding fathers of "Greater China," an economic and political union with the potential to embrace China, Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan.
Li's skyrocket-style rise into China's business and political firmament has been astounding in light of his humble beginnings.
As a boy in 1939, Li fled Shantou, a small southern Chinese city, from invading Japanese troops. Three years later, when his father died, Li had to scrape out a living for himself on the streets of war-torn Hong Kong.
Yet within a decade, Li had founded his first company and made his initial fortune by exporting plastic flowers to Europe.
In the 1960s, when the chaos of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution spilled over into Hong Kong and property prices went into a tailspin, Li began investing in real estate. His family-run conglomerates have since moved into shipping, retail, telecommunications, satellites, TV, and power plants.
His four listed companies account for more than 10 percent of the Hong Kong stock exchange's total market capitalization and often set the pace for index movements.
Li's partially owned Star Television broadcasts in English and Chinese throughout "Greater China" via Asia Satellite, a joint venture with the investment arm of the Chinese Cabinet.
Since the beginning of the year, one of Li's companies has sponsored the rebroadcast into Hong Kong of a Chinese government-made 12-part elegy to Deng Xiaoping.
Li has failed to speak out on Beijing's moves to replace Hong Kong's democratically elected legislature with a handpicked alternative on the July 1 handover, or on the more recent plan to severely limit civil liberties and give greater powers to the police.
"Li Ka-shing is unlikely to make any statement on Beijing's proposed legal and political changes unless they directly affect his business interests," says a legal expert here who requested anonymity.
The tycoon has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in extending his corporate empire to the mainland. Along the way, he has built a university, a hospital, roads, and bridges in his hometown. In central Beijing, Li has entered into a joint venture with Mr. Tung and the city government to build a massive commercial complex just outside the Forbidden City.
Back in Hong Kong, Li's property company is the main contractor to build a sprawling complex to house China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Despite his growing importance in the emerging Greater China, little is written in the local press about his political maneuvers and virtually nothing on the private life of Li Ka-shing.
Reporters say that a great wall of silence, higher than those around the tycoon's secluded mansion, surrounds Li.
"While some people talk about the danger of self-censorship in the press after China takes over, few mention the restraints that have long existed in writing about Li Ka-shing and other elites," a local journalist says.