Beijing versus billionaire Li Ka Shing

China's government and Hong Kong's wealthiest man, Mr Li Ka Shing, have been waging an acidic spat - one that increasingly looks like a bitter divorce being played out in the tabloids. Indeed, Chinese media has lately been directing a relentless stream of vitriol at Mr Li. His "crime"? Buying low in Europe and selling high in China - that is, acting like an investor.

The trigger for this wave of scorn was Mr Li's sell-off of some of his prime Shanghai properties after relocating his corporate registry from Hong Kong to the Cayman Islands. This is a mundane and rational business decision aimed at minimising tax obligations. In fact, some 70 per cent of all Hong Kong-listed firms have a Caribbean registry, and even a number of major mainland companies, including the Internet giant Alibaba, are registered in offshore tax havens.

But in the Chinese media's puerile narrative, Mr Li's move exposes him as "ungrateful" and "unpatriotic". He is "abandoning" China - which, it is claimed, enabled him to rise from extreme poverty to become one of the world's wealthiest men - when the country needs him most.

This absurd account neglects the fact that Mr Li was already one of the world's richest people before he invested in China. And it fails to recognise that Mr Li's Chinese land holdings still amount to more than 20 million sq m - nearly a quarter the size of Manhattan - and that the number of retail outlets he owns in China has risen by 70 per cent in two years.

China's attacks have pushed Mr Li to do something he had never done before: strike back. Not only did he point out that all the accusations about his intentions to abandon China were false, but he also accused China of using tactics from the Cultural Revolution that left him "trembling with fear" and sent "shivers down the spine".

But facts are irrelevant. This is politics. As China tries to tighten its grip on Hong Kong, Mr Li is showing independence, and the Chinese rulers - who, true to their communist roots, believe firmly in top-down control - do not like it.

The squabble represents a significant shift in Mr Li's relationship with Beijing. A former adviser to Deng Xiaoping and confidant of former president Jiang Zemin (whose political influence is now waning), Mr Li was among the first to invest in China after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. He long touted the motto: "I don't do anything against China's interest, and I don't say anything that may hurt China's reputation."

That changed in 2012, when Mr Leung Chun Ying was appointed Hong Kong's Chief Executive. China's first choice for the position, Mr Henry Tang, was forced to withdraw because of private indiscretions and a disgraceful bid to have his wife take the fall for a zoning violation.

Mr Leung became Beijing's man in Hong Kong, responsible for doing its bidding - including taking an uncompromising position against pro-democracy protests. And even as China's agenda in Hong Kong has become increasingly tough, Mr Leung has proved himself to be absolutely loyal to Beijing.

But Mr Li stood by Mr Tang. More problematic, he has at times dissented publicly from Mr Leung's various misguided policies. As any student of the People's Republic knows, expressions of political disagreement can be lethal. There is no "agree to disagree" in China; once the leader has spoken, there is only "obey".

In Mr Li's case, the stakes are particularly high. Unlike most of Hong Kong's tycoons, who are seen as excessively focused on political expedience, Mr Li is viewed as a person of strong conscience and thus worthy of considerable respect. His nickname is "Superman".

But now, China's rulers, through Mr Leung, are pushing potentially disastrous policies aimed, in Chinese Communist Party parlance, at "de-colonising" Hong Kong. For example, officials recently declared that judicial independence and the separation of powers are "colonial" legacies that should be discarded, with Beijing and Hong Kong's Chief Executive, not the local courts, calling the shots. In this moment of transition, dissent from someone of Mr Li's standing could have precisely the kind of destabilising impact that China's leaders fear. So Mr Li has to be "de-deified".

China's attacks have pushed Mr Li, after almost three weeks of stony silence, to do something he had never done before: strike back. Not only did he point out that all the accusations about his intentions to abandon China were false, but he also accused China of using Cultural Revolution tactics that left him "trembling with fear" and sent "shivers down the spine".

Mr Li concluded his statement with the message, delivered via three lines by two canonical Chinese poets from the ancient Tang and Song dynasties, that his home was where he felt safe. The subtext to any literate Chinese was clear: "China may be my ancestral country, but I am a free man, free to choose my home."

Mr Li has apparently not taken to heart the lesson that so many Chinese have learnt, through great personal tragedies, since 1949. The core values of China's government are not informed by the humane civility of Tang or Song poets but by the twisted dialectics of Marxism-Leninism and the amoral militaristic tradition of a party that still cherishes its often brutish and violent habits of governance.

As China's leaders continue to push for more control over Hong Kong, spinal shivers are likely to become an increasingly common feature of life there.

PROJECT SYNDICATE

  • The writer, a private investor, was recently a visiting scholar at the University of Michigan.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2015, with the headline 'Beijing versus the billionaire'. Print Edition | Subscribe