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Li Backs Tang in Hong Kong Leader Race, Won’t Pull Out Funds

Li Ka-shing
Li Ka-shing, chairman of Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. and Cheung Kong Holdings Ltd. Photographer: Jerome Favre/Bloomberg

Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong’s richest man, said he will “definitely” vote for Henry Tang in the city’s March 25 leadership election, even as the candidate’s popularity plummeted after a series of personal scandals.

Tang has city government experience and his election would benefit Hong Kong, Li said in an e-mailed statement today. Tang, Hong Kong’s former chief secretary, saw his popular support fall after he acknowledged an extramarital affair and a basement built without permits on his wife’s property.

Li, whose business interests extend into retail, ports, mobile phones and property, may be trying to rally support among Hong Kong’s 1,200-member election committee for Tang. Other members of the committee have expressed doubt about Tang after opinion polls showed him trailing fellow candidate Leung Chun-ying by more than 20 points in the wake of the scandals.

“Li Ka-shing’s actions are almost an act of desperation at this point to try to shore up support for Tang,” said Michael DeGolyer, a Hong Kong Baptist University professor who sits on the election committee. “Normally if you already have everything set up, you wouldn’t have to come out and reiterate your support for someone who everybody already knows you’re a strong supporter of.”

Poll Numbers

Tang is vying for the chief executive position with former government adviser Leung and lawmaker Albert Ho. In the latest poll by the University of Hong Kong published March 15, Tang had 20.6 percent support among respondents, while Leung was favored by 43.8 percent. Ho was backed by 10.5 percent.

Li, the Cheung Kong Holdings Ltd. chairman who sits on the election committee, said he won’t withdraw his money from Hong Kong if Leung wins. Li said in his statement he was responding to media reports, without specifying where the reports were published.

In 1998, Li said he scrapped a planned HK$10 billion ($1.3 billion) project because of the bad “political environment” in the city. Two years later, he said he would consider reducing investment in the city if “the media and politicians” work together against him.

In a column published today in the South China Morning Post, Lau Nai Keung, a member of China’s National People’s Congress, said local entrepreneurs are being squeezed by Hong Kong’s tycoons, and residents shouldn’t be concerned about threats of capital flight.

‘Flea Market’

“Should they choose to treat this city from which they made their fabulous fortunes only as a flea market, wanting to get out in times of difficulty, they are most welcome,” Lau wrote in the column, which came out before Li’s statement. “Most of us would applaud their leaving and hope they never return.”

Other members of the election committee who previously backed Tang have been less committal since his popularity has weakened. Thomas Kwok, co-chairman of Sun Hung Kai Properties Ltd., nominated Tang for the race and said Feb. 28 his decision at election-time will depend on Tang’s support. Lui Che-woo, chairman of casino operator Galaxy Entertainment Group Ltd. who also nominated Tang, said yesterday both Tang and Leung are good candidates.

On March 12, honorary Liberal Party chairman James Tien said the race between Tang and Leung was like “a choice between two rotten apples,” and said his supporters, who also helped nominate Tang, would probably cast blank ballots.

Li’s Cheung Kong sold the most apartments in Hong Kong last year, when home prices rose 8 percent. Tang, who has pledged to tackle a widening wealth gap as public anger surges over high property prices, faces Ho and Leung in a televised debate tonight.

Li is 14th on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index with a net worth of $25.6 billion. Nicknamed “superman” by the local media for his investing prowess, he opened a plastic flower factory following World War II and began focusing on Hong Kong real estate in 1967 after riots from China’s Cultural Revolution depressed prices.

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