At a mainland Chinese graduation ceremony with lighting, music and an adoring audience more in keeping with a rock concert, the star of the show, Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing, had an important announcement to make.
“After today, I will step down from the duty of being the honorary chairman of Shantou University,” Li told students at the university famed for its international outlook and occasionally clashing with Communist Party inspectors.
To a deafening welcome and a sea of phones, Cantonese-speaking Li struggling with a speech in Mandarin, announced on Friday he would pass his lifelong mission to support education to his younger son, Richard Li Tzar-kai.
Li, who turns 90 in July,looked spirited and cheerful in his first public appearance since officially handing the baton of his listed flagships CK Hutchison Holdings and CK Asset Holdings to his elder son, Victor Li Tzar-kuoi in May.
“Thirty-eight years ago, this site was deserted land. The vision to build a school here was mocked as a mission impossible,” Li told the students. “But I firmly believed that only pushing for education could fulfil [what I have been longing to do].”
“The mission to push for an education reform on this piece of beloved land will pass to my son Tzar-kai [Richard] and the foundation.”
The billionaire’s charity, Li Ka Shing Foundation, has invested almost HK$8 billion (US$1.02 billion) in the university in Guangdong province, where Li was born before he moved to Hong Kong.
In March, the school was accused of doing a poor job toeing the Communist Party line and resisting illegal religious “infiltration”.
Party inspectors urged it to more closely monitor comments by students and teachers in class and on the internet, to “enhance management” of foreign teachers, and to select academic leaders by looking at their political backgrounds.
Every academic institution in China is controlled by a party committee answering to senior cadres.
Li urged the graduating students to take the school’s creativity and eagerness to improve the world with them as they entered society. He told them they should actively respond to the challenges of their generation.
“You must have the spirit to put up with hard work, to break the curse of destiny, and make impossible things possible,” Li said, adding it was also important to be humble and curious about the world.
“I experienced being poor and sick when I was young, it gave me the valuable attitude to be appreciative,” said the entrepreneur, affectionately dubbed “superman” by Hongkongers, who has spent seven decades at the pinnacle of one of the world’s largest corporate conglomerates. “I grew up in war and strife, and I have learned from life that a grateful heart always powers joy and hope.”
“Many assume that, at my age, time is only all now. Yet even though I cannot stop time, I still get high on life. I still know what it is like to dream a dream.
“When I look up towards the night skies and feel my cosmic insignificance, even if I feel resentful and disillusioned to the brutal factors that contributed to the world’s creeping sense of hopelessness, that I am still determined to don a new set of armour every day … to keep helping others to achieve a full life.”
Li’s speech was received by enthusiastic applause by thousands of students and family members who attended the two-hour ceremony.