Many people know tycoon Li Ka-shing likes to invest in the Commonwealth countries, but perhaps only a few knew he once wanted to become a British citizen.
Hong Kong papers reported on Friday that Hong Kong’s richest businessman expressed interest in acquiring UK citizenship back in March 1989, months before the Tiananmen massacre that sparked an exodus of talented people from the city, which was then a British colony.
According to the British National Archive, Li met with the British prime minister of that time, Margaret Thatcher, who instructed her home secretary Douglas Hurd to discuss the matter with him.
After the meeting, Li wrote Thatcher a letter that said: “Thank you for listening to my comments on the passport issue. It is one of great concern and although none of us expect England to open its doors to all (no country would do that), some use of discretion will ensure that some of Hong Kong’s capital at least will find a home in the United Kingdom.”
According to the document, a plan was discussed on giving UK passports to four or five extremely wealthy Hong Kong Chinese in exchange for their investment.
It is not clear if Li ended up applying for UK citizenship. Now 89, the tycoon has lived in Hong Kong for more than 70 years.
His conglomerate CK Hutchison Holdings, which has operated telecommunication, ports, retail and other businesses, merely confirmed that it had looked into investing in telecom and other businesses in the United Kingdom and had discussed several issues with Thatcher.
Li first diversified his property business by acquiring Hutchison Whampoa in 1979, but it was the meeting with Thatcher that really kickstarted his overseas expansion plans.
In the early 1990s, Hutchison bought the Port of Felixstowe in England. Later it started a mobile-telecom business named Rabbit, which lost money. But Hutchison relaunched its mobile business as Orange in 1994 and then sold its stake the never-profitable business at the peak of the Internet bubbles in 1999 to German firm Mannesmann. The sale netted a profit of HK$113.7 billion (US$14.6 billion) without having to pay a single dollar in tax to the British government.
After that windfall, Hutchison invested further in third-generation mobile, launching a service named “3” in 2003. It also invested in health and beauty shops in the United Kingdom.
That also kicked off Li’s European era, with investment in a mobile business in Italy.
With the subsidiary CK Infrastructure, Li became active in buying up power, utilities and infrastructure projects in the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada.
The overseas expansion was made possible by disposing of relatively expensive assets in Hong Kong and mainland China, which raised eyebrows from Beijing.
Some have criticized Li for profiting too much from China. But the latest revelation has shown that Li has long thought about investing outside Hong Kong. He has put his words into action and substantially increased his exposure in United Kingdom and made even more money.