Li Ka Shing denies quitting on China, HK

ASIA'S richest man Li Ka Shing is fighting back against criticism that he is pulling his assets out of Hong Kong and mainland China, saying that such talk amounts to "a big joke".

In a rare, wide-ranging interview that analysts surmise is aimed at protecting his legacy, the 85-year-old defended his decisions to sell key assets as "normal" in the course of business, while emphasising that he is a patriot whose dream is for China to be always strong and prosperous.

"I dislike being maligned," he told journalists from the Guangzhou-based Nanfang media group in an interview published yesterday.

"This rumour about me pulling my assets out has been circulating for a few months. Today, I'm striking back."

This has been an eventful year for the high-profile Hong Kong tycoon, whose empire spans property to telecommunications, and whose fortune is valued at US$29 billion (S$36 billion) according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

In April, port workers at a subsidiary company went on a month-long strike for higher wages and better working conditions.

A widening income gap in the city also meant that the business titan became the resented symbol of the super- rich for many.

Things did not improve when news emerged that his conglomerate was looking to sell its ParknShop supermarket chain, leading to jitters that he no longer found Hong Kong an attractive proposition. These spread to mainland China when he sold three commercial properties in Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing. Mr Ronald Wan, chief China adviser of Asian Capital Holdings, said: "For the past six months, his actions have been scrutinised closely by the mainland media including government media like Xinhua, and some questioned if he was sending out signals that he was losing confidence in the new governments in China and Hong Kong.

"It seems that he wants to close the chapter on that before the end of the year."

In the interview, Mr Li - a supporter of Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying's rival Henry Tang during the leadership race last year - made it clear his business moves were prompted merely by market conditions.

"Land prices in China have surged, and we're unable to win auctions for land," he said. People are struggling to cope and developers need to be cautious, he warned.

Putting his overseas acquisitions in perspective, he said his group raked in HK$430 billion (S$70 billion) in global revenue last year. But investment in overseas infrastructure amounted to just HK$13 billion. It also invested HK$4 billion in Hong Kong cargo terminals this year.

It is also absurd to say that selling ParknShop was tantamount to pulling out of Hong Kong, he added. "Selling high and buying low is normal business behaviour. This is the first time I've heard comments about me pulling out assets from Hong Kong... and that has spread to the mainland too."

He expressed annoyance at such rumours, citing how in Singapore, where he has "a very good relationship with the Government", his conglomerate had sold assets worth billions of dollars. It also had not bought sites because of high land prices.

"But we have never heard any criticisms about 'pulling out assets' from Singapore."

Mr Li also made it clear he will be holding on to the reins of power - for now.

"I initially planned to retire early, but now the economic climate is uncertain," he said.

That said, he added, his elder son Victor, 49, is ready to take over at any time.

Mr Li also spoke at length about his philanthropic efforts, noting that his foundation had already donated HK$4 billion this year.

The interview is the latest in a recent spate of moves by Hong Kong's ageing tycoons to carefully manage their public legacy and set the stage for their successors.

Henderson Land Development chairman Lee Shau Kee, 85, has pledged to donate land to build a nursing home, a youth hostel and cheap homes. Kuok Group chairman Robert Kuok, 90, has donated RM100 million (S$39 million) to build Xiamen University's first overseas campus in Selangor.

Developer Wheelock and Company also announced on Wednesday that its chairman Peter Woo, 67, is stepping down on Jan 1. His son Douglas Woo will take over.

xueying@sph.com.sg