TIME Hong Kong

Here’s What Keeps Asia’s Richest Man Awake at Night

Li Ka-shing Inequality
Li Ka-shing stands for a photo during the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy award ceremony in New York on Thursday, October 20, 2011. Bloomberg/Getty Images

Hong Kong businessman Li Ka-shing disclosed to graduating students at China’s Shantou University the chief reason for his insomnia: wealth inequality.

“So why am I sleepless in Hong Kong?” Li, the world’s 15th richest man, posed in his commencement address. “I fear that widening inequality in wealth and opportunities, if left unaddressed could fast become ‘the new normal.'”

Indeed, in Hong Kong (and worldwide) the rich have become richer, the poor only poorer. The city-state has the highest growth of millionaires, yet nearly one-fifth of its population lives in poverty. Li’s net worth, now $34.5 billion, has increased nearly 50% since 2010, while the average household income of Hong Kong’s poorest 10% in 2011 fell by 16% since 2001.

Aside from Li’s sleeplessness, wealth inequality is also fueling Hong Kong’s annual Occupy Central movement, scheduled for July, in which demonstrators are blaming Chinese politicians — who select Hong Kong’s chief executive — for Hong Kong’s skewed wealth distribution.

One measurement of income equality is called the Gini coefficient, which measures the dispersion of income across a nation’s residents: the higher, the more unequal. Hong Kong has the world’s 12th highest Gini index; in 2011, the Hong Kong government logged the highest Gini index since it began recording the score in 1971:

Hong Kong Gini Coefficient 1971-2011
Half-Yearly Economic Report 2012, Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region

While Li’s commencement speech is laced with ostensible irony — he is, after all, Asia’s richest man — his urging of students to promote economic equality is derived from his own philanthropy. He’s known as “Superman” to his fans, and not just for his staggering wealth: Li has made nearly $2 billion in charitable donations, the majority towards education reform.

Still, Li has said that while he supports democratic reform, he does not support Occupy Central, which he estimates will cost at least HKD 1.6 billion if the protest disrupts business for just one day. Instead, Li proposed in his address that the Hong Kong government must introduce “dynamic and flexible redistribution policies that can strike a fine balance between the need to promote equity and economic objectives.”

Li is chairman of Hong Kong-based investment holding company Hutchison Whampoa.

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