Tycoon Li Ka Shing losing status as China business 'bellwether', says China newspaper

BEIJING (AFP) - A Chinese newspaper close to the ruling Communist Party on Wednesday said Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka Shing's days as a "bellwether" for China's economy were probably over, downplaying a major corporate reshuffle.

Billionaire Li, 86, last week announced a sweeping re-arrangement of his vast business empire.

Hong Kong developer Cheung Kong Holdings, his flagship firm, will take over its separately quoted subsidiary Hutchison Whampoa and the combined entity will be split into two, creating a focussed property firm and an international conglomerate, including interests in telecoms, utilities and ports.

Investors cheered the deal, sending both firms' shares jumping on Monday, but China's Global Times tabloid said Li has previously sold some real estate assets on the mainland and "increased his holdings in Europe".

It cited "rumours" that the corporate revamp signals he is about to remove assets from China and Hong Kong in a huge bet against yuan-denominated assets - and insisted such a move would mean little given changes to China's economy and the rise of a new class of entrepreneurs, such as the founder of Internet giant Alibaba.

"Li has created miracles for his generation, but the younger generation of Jack Ma may be more capable of catching up with the changes happening in China and possess the ability to make adventurous interactions," the paper said in an editorial.

"Li's investment is a drop in the ocean compared to the huge size of the Chinese economy," it added. "There have been numerous pessimistic predictions about China, but they all proved to deviate from reality."

Li had been Asia's richest man since 2012, but was surpassed by China's Internet entrepreneur Ma in December, Bloomberg News reported.

The paper praised Li for having contributed to China's economic reforms and opening to the outside world, but said his role as a weathervane has likely withered.

"He is worthy of the nickname 'Superman,' but he may not be suitable as a bellwether for the future," it said. "We should now look to other benchmarks."

Li, who is worth US$28.2 billion according to Bloomberg's Billionaires Index, started out in business as a plastic flower-maker.

The revamp is also expected to pave the way for Li's retirement and comes amid speculation of a handover to his son Victor.