Inequality alarms billionaire Li

HONG KONG: The widening wealth gap is keeping Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing up at night and Asia’s richest man warns it could become "the new normal" if left unaddressed.

The government must introduce fresh impetus to enable dynamic and flexible redistribution policies, the chairman of Cheung Kong Holdings said in an address to students at China’s Shantou University.

The speech, titled "Sleepless in Hong Kong", was posted on the website of the Li Ka Shing Foundation on Saturday.

The growing scarcity of resources and waning trust are also reasons he's being deprived of sleep, Li said.

"The howl of rage from polarisation and the crippling cost of welfare dependence is a toxic cocktail commingled to stall growth and foster discontent," said Li, who will turn 86 next month.

"Trust enables us to live in harmony, without which more and more people will lose faith in this system, breeding scepticism toward what is fair and just, doubting everything and believing all has turned sour and rancid."

Li's comments come as the debate over how to elect Hong Kong's next leader in 2017 divides the territory, with more than 750,000 people voting in an unofficial democracy poll.

Lawyers in the territory on Friday marched through the central business district in silence, in protest against a Chinese policy paper they said jeopardises judicial independence, the South China Morning Post reported.

Li ranks 17th among the world’s richest individuals with a net worth of $32.5 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. The businessman, who also controls Hutchison Whampoa Ltd, still wakes daily at 5am to listen to the news on the radio and spends 90 minutes every day playing golf and swimming.

Shantou University, founded in 1981 by Li, is the only privately funded public university in China, according to its website. The Li Ka Shing Foundation has donated HK$6 billion (US$774 million) to the university, the website says.

Technology and innovation can increase options as resources are becoming scarce, Li said in the speech. Government needs to lead change and inject a "strong dose of liberating elixir" into the education system, he said.

The failure to invest in education "is tantamount to a crime against the future", Li said.

Organisers of Occupy Central with Love and Peace, who oppose China's plans to vet candidates for elections in Hong Kong, say they intend to hold a sit-in in the financial district if electoral reforms don't meet demands.

The planned protest has drawn opposition from groups including the world's Big 4 accounting companies, foreign chambers of commerce and brokers, who say it may lead to an exodus of businesses from the city and hurt the economy.

The widening divide is beginning to worry Li.

"What is most unsettling for me is that trust, the bedrock of an enlightened society, is crumbling before our eyes," Li said. "Without a modicum of trust, society will downward spiral into a painful vicious cycle.

"Today when you rang the bell of truth, what promise did you make to the future? When dawn breaks, is today the tomorrow you worried about yesterday?" Li told the students. "Your dedication and undertaking to be the custodian of the future is the best antidote for everyone’s insomnia."

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