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POWER ON THE PACIFIC RIM : Profiles : 10 Pacific Rim Giants Tread Own Paths to Influence : Li Ka-shing: From Refugee to Billionaire

May 21, 1991|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HONG KONG — One is the illegitimate son of a wealthy industrialist. The foundation of another's fortune was a long-ago U.S.-backed loan.

A third is a notorious high-stakes gambler liable to risk millions of dollars in a day at the racetrack, while yet another furnishes his house in plastic.

A capitalist who backed a revolution is on the list, as is a refugee from communism who is now devoting much of his energy to courting his giant Communist neighbors.

They're all among the wealthiest and most influential businessmen in Asia--10 titans of the Pacific Rim. Not surprisingly, several of them have extremely close ties to the political leaders of the region. Five are ethnic Chinese. Six were born to wealth, but four others started from little or nothing.

Meet a diverse group of business leaders likely to continue having a strong influence on the shape of the region:

Li Ka-shing arrived in this British colony as a 12-year-old refugee from poverty and warfare in China. Two years later, he was working long hours in a plastic flower factory, and by age 22 he had founded his own company. Now a billionaire, he is reputed to be the richest man in Hong Kong.

Li, 63, chairman of Cheung Kong (Holdings) Ltd. and of Hutchison Whampoa Ltd., controls a vast empire of property developments, container terminals, power plants and other business ventures. His investments reach overseas as far as Canada. The Hong Kong press generally estimates his personal net worth at $2 billion.

In the early years of his rise, as real estate deals made him rich, Li remained an outsider to the British social and business elite of the colony. But by 1980, he was swallowing up British-controlled companies.

Li became not only a symbol of success and pride to Hong Kong Chinese and an undisputed member of Hong Kong's elite, but also a welcome guest at power banquets in Beijing. He developed a close acquaintance with senior leader Deng Xiaoping. China also made him a member of the committee that drafted the Basic Law that will serve as Hong Kong's mini-constitution after the colony's 1997 reversion to Chinese sovereignty.

Since the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Beijing, Li's relations with the top Beijing leadership seem to have cooled.

"If you bend with the political wind, if you have no principles, probably you'll have an easier time doing business around here," he recently told an interviewer in Hong Kong. "I would much rather keep my mouth shut than say what I don't believe to be true."

Over the years, Li also has made charitable donations in China, including large contributions for a university in his hometown of Shantou.

"Good fortune can never forget Li Ka-shing," reads an inscription posted by residents of an apartment complex in Shantou built with funds from Li.

Li's major influence, however, is in Hong Kong, where it was estimated in 1987 that the value of stocks in Li-controlled companies was equal to one-fifth of the total stock value on the Hong Kong exchange. He remains the strongest figure in the market today.

Li's power was reflected when his mother died in 1986 and he observed a traditional 14 days of mourning, withdrawing from business activities for that period. The market went into a tailspin that some analysts attributed to Li's absence.

"No one wanted to trade anything until Ka-shing was back in the game," one broker explained.

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