After 68 years in business, from plastic flowers to property development and energy to telecoms and tech, Hong Kong’s richest man retired this year. But Li Ka-shing’s philanthropic endeavours endure

Tycoon is perhaps the word most commonly associated with Li Ka-shing, one of Hong Kong’s most influential and successful businessmen. But philanthropist always follows. The former chairman of CK Hutchison Holdings, who retired in May two months before turning 90 (but continues his service in the role of senior adviser), has pledged one third of his wealth to philanthropic projects.

At his company’s annual general meeting in March, where he announced his retirement as chairman to dedicate more time to philanthropy, the spry businessman said, “Looking back all these years, it’s my honour to have founded Cheung Kong and to have served society,” giving his charitable endeavours as much regard as his commercial achievements.

Giving back has always been important to Li, in part due to his humble beginnings. Born in 1928 in Chaozhou, Guangdong, Li fled with his family to Hong Kong in 1940 following the Japanese invasion. As a teenager, he found himself sweeping floors in a factory and looking after his father, who was dying of tuberculosis. Things were not easy. But Li had determination and worked his way up to make his first fortune manufacturing plastic flowers.

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From there came property, as he was forced to purchase his factory when its lease was not offered for renewal. By the 1970s Li had become one of the city’s leading property developers, and his investments didn’t end there. He took over Hutchison Whampoa in 1979, becoming the first Chinese to own one of the big British-established trading companies.

For Li, commercial success came with responsibility to society. He set up the Li Ka Shing Foundation in 1980 with the aim of driving social progress through support for education and healthcare. Today the foundation has invested more than HK$20 billion in these areas, 80 per cent of which has centred on projects within Greater China. It is reportedly the second-largest foundation led by a private individual, after the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Li’s business ventures continued to develop, reaching a point where there wasn’t a Hongkonger whose daily life didn’t involve an encounter with part of his empire. He generated electricity, sold groceries, developed skyscrapers and connected people by mobile phone, and then there were his interests in ports and infrastructure.

Today his holdings span a variety of industries and operate in more than 50 countries, and Li is looked to as the Warren Buffett of the East in terms of his business savvy. An early supporter of Facebook, Spotify, Siri and Airbnb, the bespectacled magnate has been dubbed “superman” by local media for his skill at knowing when and where to invest.

Yet Li remains down to earth, dedicated and consistently hardworking, frequently working long days without weekends prior to retirement, and rarely succumbing to the draws of a lavish lifestyle despite having a fortune the Bloomberg Billionaires Index puts at US$32 billion.

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“Li Ka-shing is one of the richest men in Asia but he is also the most humble man I know,” says Emily Lam-Ho, a founder of EcoDrive and council member of the Women’s Commission. “He once drove my son and I around in his golf cart personally. He told me that philanthropy is not just about giving money, it’s about using whatever resources you have to do good for this world. He doesn’t only donate his money to philanthropy, he more importantly dedicates his time. And he always says, ‘Don’t just live a rich life, live an enriched life.’”

As well as encouraging him to give back, Li Ka-shing’s own rags-to-riches journey influenced him to focus on projects that can make a real difference, and on initiatives to promote social development, particularly in educational reform and medical services and research.

Li’s foundation has always had another mission, too—to encourage others, particularly in Asia, to consider giving back to society rather than passing their wealth down through the family line, which is the traditional practice in the region. Li himself refers to his foundation as his “third son” to which he not only donates his assets but is devoted. In 2011, Li told Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper, “It is a powerful metaphor in a culture where wealth is passed predominantly along family lines. Thinking about an instrument for doing social good as a child—as your child, in particular—focuses you as the giver on building an entity that is robust, one that has inner strength.”

Major projects of the Li Ka Shing Foundation have included helping hospitals, schools and universities in 27 countries and regions. As Li strongly believes, and knows from his own experience, “Knowledge and education can change a young person’s destiny, healthcare promotes and restores human dignity, and medical research makes possible new and better forms of care.”

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The example Li has set has also helped to change the idea that wealth should remain within the family, instead encouraging those who can to reshape the future through dedicating time and money.

“Li Ka-shing’s philanthropic work is an inspiration to all of us,” says Anne Wang-Liu, who is co-chair of the Hong Kong Ballet Guild and is on the board of governors for the Hong Kong Ballet and Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centre. “His support for cornerstones of our society, such as education and healthcare, helps to develop positive and sustainable change. He encourages giving to nurture a new culture of philanthropy.” Hopefully Li’s legacy will inspire the next generation to give back and help shape a brighter future, particularly for those born into less fortunate circumstances.

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