Entrepreneur Li Ka-shing has just started a new chapter in his storybook career. And the title of this new chapter is “The Third Son.” Everybody knows that Li has two sons. Victor, the elder, is managing director and deputy chairman of Cheung Kong (Holdings) Limited. Richard is chairman of PCCW. But now there is a third, Li reveals. It’s the Li Ka Shing Foundation. Li is pouring his energy and resources into his third son, in the hope that he will grow up quickly to benefit mankind.
“Even if I leave it all to my two sons, it doesn’t make that much of a difference to them. But by leaving it to my third son, many more people will be able to benefit and feel the difference.” Li has given notice to everyone that neither the members of the Li family nor the Board of Directors of the Foundations stand to gain from their positions. Li has also told his two sons that their “brother” will not give them trouble, and that they shouldn’t make trouble for their “brother.”
Li is juggling two careers. One is the profit-making business spearheaded by Cheung Kong (Holdings) Limited and Hutchison Whampoa Limited, which has diversified businesses in 42 countries and a staff of 180,000. The other is centered on the Li Ka-shing Foundation which continues to look for ways to “spend” money. It is part of Li’s lifelong commitment to make meaningful contributions to causes in education, medical care, culture, and community welfare. Since its establishment in 1980, the Foundation has supported numerous philanthropic activities with grants, sponsorships, and commitments of over HK$6.5 billion. Li said these are his two most important commitments. Besides spending an hour and 15 minutes each morning playing golf, and taking a breather on Sundays, all of Li’s time and attention are consumed by these ventures, which together form the cornerstones of Li’s new life.
In January, Li sold 17 million common shares in the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, which netted HK$7.8 billion (US$1 billion). Li announced that he would inject this considerable sum into the Li Ka Shing Foundation and the newly established Li Ka-shing (Canada) Foundation. “I have been pleased to be an investor in CIBC for many years, and this investment in the Bank has earned a handsome return. I am pleased to be able to increase the allocation of my assets to charitable purposes,” Li said.
This largess represents the largest charitable donation in history by a Chinese. A Canadian philanthropy expert said, even if only half of the amount is injected into the fund, the Li Ka-shing (Canada) Foundation would still be the second largest charitable foundation in Canada. Chinese Canadians have also warmly welcomed this generous gift. After January 14 when the news was announced, new Chinese immigrants in Canada posted an open letter to Mr. Li on a website called www.51.ca. The letter, under the heading, “Emergency Aid for New Immigrants,” invited Li to set aside a small portion of his charitable donation to establish an emergency relief fund for new immigrants. Over 600 visitors to the web site had signed the letter in support within one day of the its posting.
Like his business empire, Li’s philanthropy empire also spans across the globe. Li said, “I want to use my experience and resources to create a multi-layered culture of giving for our people.”
On January 20, French President Jacques Chirac personally bestowed the insignia of the Commandeur de la Légion d’Honneur upon Li at the Elysee Palace in recognition of his generosity, humanitarianism, and his contributions to the links between France, Mainland China and Hong Kong. In praise of Li, Chirac said, “Your profound generosity is unanimously recognized and it has not excluded France.”
Poverty and disease are two of the most troubling problems the world faces. Li has long contributed to society in his capacity as a socially responsible businessman, but he felt that it wasn’t enough to overcome society’s indifference to the poor. He decided to utilize his resources to support programs that serve to foster a culture of caring and giving.
Although Hong Kong’s economy has rebounded strongly, poverty continues to grab the headlines. Li is saddened by the phenomenon of cross-generational poverty. He believes that “capacity building through education is the best way to combat poverty in Hong Kong.” Several universities in Hong Kong have benefited from Li’s contributions to education. Li hopes that each person will contribute in his/her own way to helping others.
While the overall environment in Hong Kong is much improved since the days when Li started his own business, Li sees a multitude of problems such as young people’s lack of direction, political parties advancing their own agendas, an overcritical media, an entire middle class that’s being neglected, and businesspeople becoming targets for criticism. Many people are not building up their own confidence from self-reliance or seeking fairness and justice through their own hard work and effort.
Li says accusations of collusion between business and Government are unfair because there are no specific cases. Li is pleased that his business has continued to develop healthily despite constant competitive pressure. Profit from overseas operations and investments will soon exceed 8o% of the total. “This is because of the rapid growth of our overseas businesses,” Li said.
People close to Li know that he is a critical thinker, developed through years of reading and learning. Li is a voracious reader, his favorite pastime besides playing golf. His reading interests span a wide range of subjects, including politics, philosophy, literature, and history.
Li recently spent two nights reading The Wolf’s Totem. Li said he has gained a new appreciation for wolves, which are strategic and patient in hunting their prey. They lie patiently downwind on a grassy field and wait until after the sheep have fed before pouncing on them. The author of the book said Chinese should not only consider themselves to be descendents of the dragon, but also descendents of the wolf.
Li proposed setting up free hospice services to care for terminally ill cancer patients, in the hope that their last days will be spent in comfort and dignity. He admires the hospice staff for their selfless giving and spirit of sacrifice. He founded Shantou University to engineer reforms in China’s education system. He set up the Cheung Kong Scholars Award to promote science and teaching; he implemented the Western Education and Medical Development Program to alleviate poverty and to provide assistance to the disabled on a long-term basis. He has supported leading-edge scientific research at universities in the UK, Singapore, Canada, and Australia. He provided disaster relief for victims of the South Asian tsunami. He donated rice to victims of flash floods in Anhui. His contributions are diversified across sectors and borders, but over 80% of his resources remain tied to his roots in Hong Kong and Mainland China.
Free hospice service was established to alleviate suffering for terminally ill patients. Li said, “Terminally ill cancer patients suffer from enormous pain. Our greatest gift to them is to alleviate their suffering and let them live out their remaining days in comfort.”
Li made his first donation to a hospice service over 20 years ago in Hong Kong. In 1998, Li initiated the idea of establishing a free hospice service at the Shantou University Medical College. With Li’s support, SUMC pioneered the Mainland’s first free hospice service. The program has expanded to include 20 hospitals across the nation, operating on an annual budget of HK$25 million provided by the Li Ka-shing Foundation.
There was a husband and wife in their early 30’s in Tianjing who both developed a terminal disease. They were referred to as two unlucky people who got together to form an ill-fated family. When staff from Li’s hospice service first came to offer help, they resisted. “We’re already having a rough time as it is. Don’t try to scam us.” The medical staff patiently explained the nature of their free services. Half-believingly, the couple accepted the service and were taken care of by the medical staff. Before the husband quietly passed away, he conveyed his gratitude to the medical staff. “Please thank Mr. Li for me. I know now that there are still good people in this world.”
Li realizes that limited resources make it impossible for any individual alone to tackle the problem of mass poverty. In 2001, Li pooled resources with China’s Ministry of Education to establish the Education and Medical Development Programs for Western China. As part of the program, 10,000 primary schools in underdeveloped regions were equipped with satellite technology that deliver multimedia education information and resources provided by Chinese Education TV. Following the successful implementation of this program, the Central Government listed it as one of the national distance education programs for rural schools and has allocated RMB 1.3 billion to implement distance education programs in 50,000 primary and secondary schools over the next five years.
One of the Foundation’s most recent programs is “Caring Is Hip” which was launched in Chaozhou. It represents the continuation of Li’s efforts to foster a culture of caring and giving. The program, funded by Government and the Li Ka-shing Foundation, and supported by SUMC and the public, aims to set up satellite medical clinics in impoverished areas to provide low-cost healthcare. Li said, “This program maximizes the use and reuse of precious resources and brings a community together. I feel this is very important.”
What Li wants more than anything else is to “spend his hard-earned money on worthwhile causes.” According to a recent survey by The Times UK, in 2003, Li was ranked 33rd among the world’s wealthiest individuals, with assets amounting to HK$72.7 billion. In February 2004, Forbes Magazine also published a ranking in which Li was positioned at number 19, with assets of HK$96.7 billion. But the media does not survey how Li’s wealth is spent. What exactly is the true meaning and value of Li’s life?
Li has a lifelong wish—to give more than to receive. “To be able to contribute to society and to help those in need to build a better life, that is the ultimate meaning in life. I would gladly consider this to be my life’s work.” To Li, the gratification derived from giving far outweighs the worth of his assets. This is the true meaning of wealth accumulation.
Privately, Li leads a simple life. But he gives generously to help empower capacity building through education and to cultivate a caring society through medical care. Li tells a story about an official in Hangzhou during the Tang dynasty who sought the advice of a Zen master. The Zen master told him, “Do no evil, do some good.”
The official said, “Even a 3-year-old child knows this.”
The Zen master replied, “A 3-year-old child may know it, but an 80-year-old man can’t live it.”
Li proves his true worth through his actions, and he thanks the Heavens for giving him the intelligence, the ability and the determination.
Li makes money with one hand and spends it with the other. He is happy when he makes money, but even happier when he spends it. He knows that more people will be able to benefit from his giving. Li lost his father to illness when he was just a boy. Forced to quit school, Li had to shoulder the responsibility of supporting his family at the age of 12. The importance of health and education was not lost on him. Li’s hardship and suffering helped to forge an enormous capacity for caring that drives him to help whenever he can.
His compassion grew from the difficulties, suffering, and illnesses he experienced in his childhood, and that’s also where the seeds of his intelligence germinated. In the early 1960s, his career was beginning to take off. His factory was in Western, and his office was located in Edinburgh Tower on Ice House Street in Central. There was a woman who stood on the corner of the street. Though she did not beg, she accepted money from anyone who offered. Li believed that she was an honest person, and approached her one day after work. “Do you have any relatives in Hong Kong? If you can arrange for someone to transfer to you a license to sell newspapers in front of the restaurant, I can offer you the financial support. This way you won’t have to stand on a street corner to beg.”
Li’s business is usually conducted from his Central office. But on the day that Li promised to give the money to the woman on the street corner, one of his customers asked to visit his factory in Western. To keep his word, Li left in the middle of a meeting. “I have to go out for a little while. If the client asks, tell him I went to the bathroom.” Li sped from Western to Central. “This was the fastest I had ever driven.” He stopped next to the curb and found the woman standing there. When the woman showed proof that she had obtained a license transfer, Li gave her the money and returned to his factory. The client was asking for him, but nobody knew that he had disappeared to perform a good deed. The truth is, not even those closest to Li are aware of the scope of his charitable activities. Li had kept quiet all the while he was continuously injecting new funds into his personal foundations. The reason that the sale of the CIBC shares and the subsequent donation was announced in a joint statement was to dispel any speculation that his long-standing relationship with CIBC had gone sour. Although Li has not disclosed the exact dollar amount of the assets in his foundations, it is believed to be in the tens of billions. Li said that whenever he makes donation, he would replenish the Foundation with an amount not less than the amount donated. The investment and interest income from the foundation’s funds would grow over time to ensure a sufficient pool of resources to sustain charitable funding well into the future.
Li is admired by many people in Hong Kong. Young people of Hong Kong voted him as their most admired person for 10 years running. When there was an auction to raise funds for a youth volunteer organization, Li donated some of his personal belongings, including a gold-plated 3G mobile phone, a wallet with his signature, and 20 neckties. The leather wallets bearing his signature were sold for $8,888 each, and even his ties fetched up to $3,888. The bidder said that Li’s achievements are outstanding and hoped that his personal belongings can bring him good fortune. In airports, shopping arcades or other public places, people come up to him to say hello. This is when Li is happiest. “Your life is meaningful if you can honestly say that you have done your best to do some good.”
Q: Tell us about the story of your third child.
A: I was tossing and turning one night. The next day, when I was having dinner with my family, I told them that I have a third child. They fell silent. They were shocked and thought that I had finally lost it. Actually it was an epiphany. If I had a third child, wouldn’t I want to build a solid foundation for his future? By treating my private foundation as my third son, I could allocate more assets to it and enable it to benefit more people. I hope our 1.3 billion compatriots can understand this reasoning because our Chinese tradition is to pass on our wealth from one generation to the next. But if we can use our wealth to benefit society, then everyone will be happier.
Q: If you think of your foundation as a son, would you have to make even more sacrifices than you did for your two sons?
A: There are all kinds of suffering in the world. Some people are poor, some are sick, some are handicapped, others have no access to a quality education. Some of these cases are hopeless. But others, like access to education, if given the proper assistance, can be reversed. If a child can receive a good education, then he/she has a good chance of escaping poverty and maybe even improving his family’s fortunes.
The suffering associated with illness and disability can also be alleviated. Your investment in society can reap an outstanding return. This Foundation is over 20 years old, and it’s getting stronger by the day. It’s like a child to me. I tell my two sons in jest that their new brother will not make trouble for them, so they shouldn’t make trouble for him either. They should try and get along.
Q: You believe that knowledge reshapes destiny. Is education the answer to cross-generational poverty?
A: Yes, this is a very effective solution. In Mainland China, there are many families such as those that work the mines and the fields that have been mired in poverty for two or three generations. If we can give their children a good education, then we can give them a fighting chance of escaping poverty. Many people need help, and the resources of any individual are limited. The government also needs to implement policies that are complementary. Traditionally, the Chinese view charity as a virtue, but it doesn’t compensate for public indifference in a materialistic society. We need to adopt a new way of thinking to reshape our people’s destiny. This is the idea that I want to spread.
Q: And what do you get from all of this?
A: A man’s life, even if he lives to be 100, is but a flash in the river of time. What makes your time here worthwhile is some sort of contribution that makes a difference not just today, but for the future
Q: What do you have to offer the poor and the sick?
A: I know from experience that disease and poverty are cruel. This is a pressing problem that needs to be solved. The least we can do is to alleviate their pain and suffering. We can give people hope. They’ll at least sleep better at night if they know that their children will have a better future. There are things over which we have no control, but we can definitely do something about education and healthcare.
Q: You have two careers. A business career and a philanthropy career. Are you busier now than you were before?
A: I spend an hour and 15 minutes playing golf every morning, and I rest on Sundays, but besides that, I spend all of my time on these two careers. I make money with my listed companies, and I spend it on charities. They are both very important.
Q: Why are you so involved with philanthropy?
A: I want to inspire a new way of thinking: If Li Ka-shing can do it, so can we. Even though the Chinese economy is taking off, there are still places in the rural regions where life is hard. Without systematic support, the growing wealth gap will lead to tragedy. But my resources are limited. What can I do? I hope that what I’m doing now will increase government support and raise public awareness. I have made this clear to my family—100% of the Foundation’s resources are spent on helping people we don’t know. No member of my family or the Foundation’s Board of Directors stand to gain from the Foundation.
Q: We understand that much of donations to Project Hope in China do not reach the beneficiaries. Reasons may be graft or high operation costs. Do you apply your management expertise to philanthropy as well?
A: Good management is vital. Right now, we have programs to provide free cataract operations, low-cost prosthetics, and hospice services in 20 hospitals across the nation, and we have computer records of all the medical histories and personal information of the patients. I can pick up the phone anytime and call the patients at home to see how they are actually doing. People who misappropriate donation funds are heartless, and criminals should be punished.
Q: You give us the impression that you are a hands-on manager, in business and in charity. Is this a kind of responsibility?
I am pleased to shoulder this responsibility. I believe that within three years, the Foundation will develop an organizational structure which would allow it to operate smoothly and efficiently even if I were not involved.
Zeng Guofan has a famous quote: “Aspiration, knowledge, perseverance.” I would add “Achievement”. We need to act on our good will. Even though poverty continues to plague us today, the situation is still far better than at the end of the WWII. You couldn’t go to school or see a doctor if you didn’t have money. In Hong Kong today, you can go to university if you make good grades. Only people who help themselves benefit most from Government assistance. The government should promote this concept.
This year we will try something new. Besides our ongoing commitments, we will earmark a sum of HK$100 million for charitable organizations.
Q: You are a very influential person, but you rarely state your political views. Why?
A: I understand geopolitical developments and their ramifications. I can differentiate between the bureaucrats, the selfish but impotent politicians, and the dedicated officials who toil day and night to improve the living standards of their people. I am also interested in political history.
How can the people not know which politicians work for themselves and which work for the people? There are two different kinds of politicians. Those who work for themselves try to gain from their position of power. They’ll do anything to get votes and keep power. Politicians who work for the people uphold ideals and are there to serve.
Q: It has been said that helping strangers is the only true expression of love. Has anyone ever thanked you in person?
A: Of course. I receive lots of email and letters. Some people don’t need financial assistance; they just want some encouragement. A businessman overseas was depressed because his business was doing poorly. I didn’t know him but after reading his letter, I called him and gave him some words of encouragement. He turned his business around and now he sends me his companies’ products every year as Christmas presents.
Q: Do you feel that people nowadays are more indifferent?
A: Indifference has always existed. The problems we face today are more serious. Many people want to achieve overnight success. Some people in Hong Kong are also green with envy. In the past, the attitude was that even if a person is poor, he could control his own destiny by working hard and building knowledge. But these days, many people are not willing to start at the bottom. They keep thinking, “Why can’t I have what he has?” They don’t understand that equity is achieved through self-reliance and hard work.
Q: You have said that poverty is not a crime. But Hong Kong people seem to look down on the poor.
Poverty is definitely not a crime. The only crime is lack of ambition in life. When I was young, I didn’t have any money. I was alone, working in Hong Kong. But people respect you because they could see that you worked longer hours than everyone else, and read useful books whenever you had spare time. People don’t respect you if you don’t put in any effort. There is a phenomenon in Hong Kong where people “loathe the rich and despise the poor.” This is an unhealthy attitude. A real estate developer in Hong Kong once said that “Hong Kong is the most communist city in all of China.” Equity in capitalist economy is not achieved through equal distribution of wealth. We should keep in mind that people without ambition are the poorest of all.
Q: How do you handle praise and criticism?
A: I always listen to criticisms calmly and objectively. I understand the difference between constructive criticism, personal attacks, and the ulterior motives behind them. My conscience is clear.
Q: We rarely see you countering criticism directed at you. As someone in a position of influence, sometimes you are on the receiving end of criticism. Why?
A: I don’t easily criticize people. Some people can’t handle criticism. If I say too much, I might offend them.
Q: You appear very collected. Is there anything that upsets you?
A: Empty words, empty promises. Many people nowadays don’t speak their true minds. They tell so many lies that they soon forget what’s true and what’s false. They begin to believe their own web of deceit. Profit from our overseas business will soon account for about 80% of our Group’s total profit. This development is an indication of the fast growth of our overseas investment rather than any slowdown in our local investment. Canada is one of the destinations for our investment, but it is not the largest. I am grateful for the warm welcome that Canada has extended to me over the years.
Profitable businesses can help to strengthen the Foundation. I don’t need recognition, but I hope to gain more wisdom and to do more meaningful deeds.
Q: Can you share with us your views on fame and fortune?
Many people dream of achieving fame, but I don’t see it as being very important. I have turned down honorary titles and degrees from renowned universities and organizations. A former director of the company tried to persuade me to accept an international Man of the Year Award as a way to foster better business ties with overseas companies. At last he gave up and joked, “Mr. Li, there was a kilogram of gold waiting to be had, and you gave it up.” But he doesn’t realize that if I go and accept this honor and receive their hospitality, then when they come calling, we would have to reciprocate their kindness. It is common courtesy. It’s unfortunate that I don’t have the time.
Q: Does this mean that you no longer have any longings?
A: Of course I have longings. I’ll tell you a joke, then you’ll understand what my longings are. Sometimes I feel that I don’t have the right disposition to be a good businessman. I loathe the social scene; I don’t like cultivating relationships; and I’m too emotional. These are all weaknesses in doing business. But I also have some strengths. First, I have a thirst for knowledge. Second, I work hard, which can compensate for some of the weaknesses. Most importantly, I know what’s right from wrong.
I long for a frugal life. In general, frugal people have more time. This attitude has not affected my business, but has actually helped me to achieve the best results and best returns for my shareholders. If I dare say, this is the pinnacle of my business career right now.
Right now I am spending much of my attention on education and healthcare for those in need. It makes me happy and I hope to contribute even more because I know that with a well-managed operation, the Foundation can continue to do good work on a sustainable basis, even after I’m gone.