Ten Years After the Return to China: Hong Kong Reinvents Itself, Yet Again

By Erich Follath

Part 5: Shopping Sprees from The Mainland

The man whose name is one everyone's lips is 78-year-old businessman Li Ka-shing, who is worth an estimated $23 billion and one of the world's 10 richest men -- not bad for someone whose father would have ended up in a pauper's grave if it hadn't been for handouts, and who, as a penniless 12-year-old boy, began his career selling plastic belts. Like hardly any other Hong Kong businessman, Li Ka-shing personifies the city's rise from grinding poverty, from the swamps of sweatshops to the Cyberport and the glittering world of international big business.

"I never felt despair about Hong Kong," says the behind-the-scenes ruler of this city. At the same time, he cautions against investing too naively in the stock markets of the People's Republic. Li can say this sort of thing without checking with Beijing first. He enjoys the complete trust of the Communist Party leadership, after having invested enormous sums in China.

Hong Kong's superman controls more container terminals worldwide than anyone else. He also plays an active role in the German economy, where he once caused telecommunications giant Deutsche Telekom's stock price to plunge by selling 44 million shares in the company. Whenever a citizen of the SAR spends a dollar, Li collects 10 cents, or so the saying goes in the former colony. He is considered the city's largest property owner and real estate developer, and he owns businesses from supermarkets to electric utilities.

He currently sees potential in the development of traditional Chinese medicine, says this business mogul with the Midas touch. Li's surprising expression of interest in Chinese medicine was even worth a cover story in the business publication Forbes Asia. The gist of the article went something like this: Does Superman know something we don't know -- and which of his companies should we invest in right now?

Li Ka-shing was never a fan of Governor Patten's efforts to bring democracy to Hong Kong. He is a patriarch who believes that the sole purpose of politics is to facilitate business. He is a Chinese patriot who once donated £100,000 (€148,000) to Britain's Conservative Party. He has already selected his own gravesite on a hill on the mainland, near his hometown of Shantou, to which he has donated a hospital and a university. He is considered extremely modest in his private life, preferring off-the-rack suits and a €50 watch. Li Ka-shing has donated one-third of his fortune to his foundation, which he calls his "third son."

Not far from the Li skyscraper in downtown Hong Kong, tourists from China visit the Bank of China building, known in the Hong Kong vernacular as "Deng's last erection." There has been such an enormous increase in tourism from the mainland to the SAR that the Chinese now make up the largest group of visitors. They still need a special permit to visit, but such permits are now easier to obtain for "shopping sprees."

These new tourists may not spend as much on hotels as the Japanese or the Americans, but they play a vital role in Hong Kong's economy. The mainland Chinese are power shoppers and voracious gamblers. They storm the SAR's Armani and Hermès boutiques, and they are responsible for generating more revenues in a single day of racing at Happy Valley or Sha Tin than Germany's horse racing tracks see in an entire year. Some Communist Party officials carry suitcases full of their corrupt earnings from Hong Kong across to the former Portuguese colony of Macau to launder their millions on the gambling center's roulette tables.

What do the mainland tourists tell their friends about the political demonstrations they witness here, or the promotional events for the Falun Gong sect, which is banned at home in China? Are they impressed, horrified, infected by democracy? How does Hong Kong compare to Shanghai, China's other once-colonial and now cosmopolitan city?

Nora Sun, who has business interests in both cities, is a good person to ask. She has no need to watch what she says. Merely the mention of her grandfather is enough to convince influential people throughout China to listen to her words with reverence. Nora's grandfather is Sun Yat-sen, the man who once agitated for the revolution in Hong Kong and then proceeded to cut off the old empire's pigtails. In 1912 he proclaimed the Republic of China in Nanking and became its first president, and today he is worshiped by communists and democrats alike.

Nora Sun's life reads like an adventure story. Born in Shanghai, she was kidnapped at the age of eight. After her parents paid the kidnappers' ransom, she and her mother fled to Hong Kong when Mao's troops seized the family's villa. She became a stewardess, married a pilot and made her first million as a real estate agent in California. She earned a degree in business in the mid-1980s and, in 1996, took a position as attaché at the US General Consulate in Shanghai.

Now retired, she has returned to her mother's villa and is probably Shanghai's most sought-after party guest. When she visits Hong Kong, where her son manages their jointly owned consulting firm, she is just as much in demand socially.

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