The Hong Kong newspapers call him chiu yan (Superman), but at first glance the only thing Li Ka-shing has in common with Clark Kent is a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. This hardly bothers his legions of admirers. To them, this modest 78-year-old is the most successful Chinese businessman of his generation. Today, Li's fortune totals more than $18 billion. But less than 30 years ago, he was just a face in a crowd of aggressive Hong Kong businessmen trying to push past the entrenched foreign Taipans and their Shanghainese counterparts who ruled the roost in what was then a British colony. Born in the Chinese city of Chiu Chow, the son of a teacher, Li started by founding a Hong Kong plastics firm. He burst onto the public stage in 1979, when he made a deal giving him control of the ailing British-owned conglomerate Hutchison Whampoa. Li quickly used his new platform to build on Hutchison's ports, property and retailing assets, expanding into telecommunications, energy and beyond. As Li's empire grew so did a band of faithful followers who mobbed banks that handed out application forms for new issues of shares offered by his companies. Li made money for Hong Kong's small investors and they loved him, not just for that but also because he was seen as one of them a little guy who had beaten the big guys at their own game.
As Li's power and influence grew it became clear that his real talent lay not just in having an uncanny eye for opportunities but also in knowing when to sell. He has long traded his property assets in Hong Kong, predicting the market's peaks and troughs with seeming clairvoyance, and he has applied his skills to other assets, too. In 1999, he sold the British-based Orange telephone network to Germany's Mannesmann for a $14.6 billion profit; within a year, the tech bubble burst and the value of such assets plummeted. Skeptics wondered why Li took control of Canada's Husky Oil in 1991 and suffered years of poor returns, but the company is now one of the jewels in the Li portfolio.
In recent years, Li's trading finesse has drawn criticism from shareholders annoyed at the spinning off of assets, such as telecom companies, in a way that lines his pockets more than their own. There are also rumblings of discontent over the lack of transparency in Li's dealings. He recently helped finance a deal by a close associate, investment banker Francis Leung, to buy the assets of PCCW, the telecom firm controlled by his son Richard Li. At the time of the proposed sale, the younger Li maintained that his father was not involved in this politically sensitive deal, but later it came to light that he loaned Leung most of the cash for his deposit on the purchase.
Still, those who do business with Li know that when he gives his word, he keeps it. And lately he has further burnished his reputation by becoming perhaps Asia's most prominent philanthropist, showing the way in a region where tycoons have been relatively slow to shift from getting to giving. In August, he said he would give a sizeable portion of his wealth to his charitable foundation. In Chinese society, dazzling success is revered while envy exerts a far weaker pull on the imagination. That's why Li, the quintessentially successful businessman, remains a hero to so many.