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Chinese state media escalate attacks on Li Ka-shing

Hong Kong -- Polemics between Li Ka-shing and Beijing's state media are heating up over criticism that the tycoon is selling some of his assets in China.

     Hong Kong's richest man should be prepared for "de-deification" since the Chinese now view him more as a profit-driven businessman than a patriotic one, warned state-run newspaper Global Times on Sept. 30 after Li rebutted earlier media attacks.

     The People's Daily, regarded as the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, also published an editorial saying that Li should stop "making a big fuss" over recent accusations for the disposal of assets.

     The newspapers were reacting to a tough three-page statement that Li's office issued on Sept. 29 defending his business strategy.

     Li said accusations that he was withdrawing from China were "groundless," adding that the media commentaries were written with "twisted logic" and language that "made one shiver and feel regretful."

     State media attacks on Li began about two weeks ago when he was criticized for being "ungrateful" for abandoning China, when the country is experiencing an economic slowdown, by selling or relocating assets held in the country. Some media said Li would "regret" his actions once China recovers.

     Dubbed "Superman," Li chairs Cheung Kong Hutchison, a business conglomerate whose interests from ports to telecoms and supermarkets in more than 50 countries.

     "Individual viewpoints are not representative of China's overall direction," said Li in his statement, adding that he was confident about China's determination to deepen market reforms, while voicing support for Chinese President Xi Jinping's pragmatic leadership style.

     Sonny Lo Shiu-hing, a political analyst and professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, said Li's rebuttal is understandable.

     The dispute, said Lo, is a warning to Hong Kong businessmen that "any attempt to relocate out of mainland China or any possible misstep" in the country will attract media criticism.

     "After all, the mainland media are now more diversified and politically differentiated than ever before," he said, although he added that criticism by the state media does not necessarily reflect the official line.

     Regarding the sale of assets in China, Li said his group's property acquisitions there had slowed because of imbalanced property markets in some cities. But he added that the group still has 20 million square meters of land under development in China.

     Li has reportedly sold assets in major Chinese cities in recent years, including an attempt to sell a commercial complex in Shanghai's Pudong district for $3.13 billion in August.

     "Making less property investments is by no means a divestment from China," Li argued, explaining that the group's retail property investments have grown, with a thousand new company-owned stores being added in the last two years, representing a 77% increase.

     Li referred to "reform" six times in his statement, suggesting the need for continued market reforms in China.

     "He 'reminds' the Chinese leadership to continue [the] effort of marketization, which in my view reveals his concern about losing the game," said Joseph Fan, a finance professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong.

     Fan believes that Li's business empire is losing advantage in heavily regulated sectors due to his deteriorating relations with Chinese politicians, although the retail industry, where the Li family is strong, is less influenced by the Chinese government.

     "With or without intention, the recent anti-Li media campaign reminds business owners in China [of] the importance of coping with politics, and they have to pay their 'debts' before [they are] free to leave the game," said Fan.

     On Sept. 4, CK Hutchison announced the merger of two key units, Bermuda-registered Cheung Kong Infrastructure Holdings and Power Assets Holdings, in a move to delist the latter.

     When the deal is completed, none of listed CK Hutchison companies will be incorporated in Hong Kong or China.

     In defending the deal, Li said his group is not an exception. Over the last decade, some 70% of Hong Kong-listed companies, including Chinese state-owned enterprises, have incorporated offshore to modernize their corporate structure and raise efficiency.

     Li has not reduced his holdings nor has he "reaped any proceeds" during the reorganization process, the statement said.

     On whether he is "unpatriotic", Li said such false accusations "pained" him as he has witnessed China's substantial growth over the last 30 years.

     "Home is where your heart is," said Li, citing Su Shi, a renowned Chinese poet, who wrote the line after he was sent into exile.

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