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Barun Roy: The emperor of charities

Giving, in the legendary tycoon Li's view, is a way of creating wealth

Barun Roy 

In the course of his long and chequered business career, which began way back in 1945 as a struggling hardware salesman in Hong Kong, the has not only amassed enough wealth to count as the (until India’s overtook him in a recent global ranking), but has also emerged as one of Asia’s biggest donors to charity. Now that he’s passing the control of his business to his eldest son, there would be more time for him to concentrate on his other love — sharing.

The handover process started last month when Li’s younger son, Richard, transferred his one-third holding in Li Ka-shing Unity Holdings, the family trust, to elder brother Victor Li, giving him two-thirds control of family assets. These include the HK$850 billion Cheung Kong Holdings, one of Hong Kong’s largest conglomerates, whose businesses in properties, ports, telecommunications, energy and retail are spread over 55 countries. The elder Li, whose personal net worth of $25.5 billion ranks him ninth on the 2012 Forbes list of global billionaires, will continue to hold the remaining one-third of the family trust.

Giving has long been a part of Li’s life, but it was not before 1980 that it became a mission as important as acquiring wealth. That was the year he founded a special vehicle, called the Li Ka-shing Foundation, based in and Canada, with two specific purposes in mind: empowering people through education and building a caring society through medical and health care projects.

In fact, Li regards the foundation as his third son, often referring to it in his speeches and messages as “him.” Last June, signing an agreement to help Shantou University in China’s Guangdong province develop as an international centre of excellence, he said: “This third son is there to fortify my commitment to education and my promise to support Shantou University beyond my lifetime.”

That “third son” isn’t a mere figure of speech but a strong article of faith is evident from the fact that, in the 32 years it has been in existence, the foundation has already given out $1.64 billion to support educational and medical projects in China, and elsewhere in the world. Li’s declared goal is to take his charity commitments to equal at least one-third of his personal worth, or over $8 billion in today’s valuation, which would make him Asia’s undisputed emperor of charities.

The direction he has chosen towards this end is significant. At one end of his philanthropic spectrum are hospices in and – 42 of them so far – to give terminally-ill patients a dignified farewell. At the other is a unique global network of reputed institutes engaged in medical education and research, called East-West Alliance, whose members meet annually to discuss pressing global health issues and explore opportunities for collaboration in high-impact medical research.

One could call it creative giving, something that goes beyond merely fulfilling a passing need and serves a lasting cause. A good example of this is the Li Ka-shing Knowledge Institute at the University of Toronto’s St Michael’s Hospital, a “living laboratory” that seeks to bring the worlds of research, education and patient care together, bridging the gulf separating education from research and research from frontline health care.

Or the Li Ka-shing Centre for Learning and Knowledge at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, dedicated two years ago. The five-level, 120,000 sq ft state-of-the-art centre – Stanford’s first new medical education building in 50 years – expects to transform the way aspiring doctors and health professionals are trained through interactive and experimental learning technologies.

Shantou University is just one example of Li’s philanthropic involvement in education. He helped set up China’s first private, non-profit, independent business school – the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business – with campuses in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, in response to China’s growing demand for top-level executives. At Tsinghua University in Beijing, he helped the government develop a Future Internet Technology Research Centre, now an incubator for China’s key information technology projects. He has established professorships and scholarships at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. In 2001, when was formulating plans to develop its western regions, Li responded with a project called (Satellite Transmission Advance Network for Distance Learning) to provide a digital learning platform for remote area students.

A pattern, thus, emerges and the philosophy behind it becomes quite clear. Giving, in Li’s view, is a way of creating wealth, too – empowering people, bettering life and adding to development – and should be its ultimate objective. One understands why he’s so passionate about it. To a businessman who has been so handsomely rewarded by society, nothing can be a more desirable form of give-and-take than converting personal riches into social wealth that will last.  

First Published: Thu, August 09 2012. 00:43 IST