All in the Family

Hong Kong may have a population of 7 million, but the very top it consists of a small business elite with innumerable cross directorships and direct links into government. Given the right pedigree, advancement is extremely rapid.

Take for instance David Li Kwok-po, the quintessential old-money Hong Kong figure. He has a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth, is a trusted member of mainland China’s rubber-stamp bodies, has been a representative for decades of the banking fraternity on the Legislative Council, is the anglophile founder of Friends of Cambridge University , and is on the board of Dow Jones ( He was recently suspected of inadvertently leaking news of the Murdoch bid.).

Li is also a cousin of the chief justice and brother of Education Secretary Arthur Li, an able if arrogant academic turned power-wielder. David Li is married into the Poon family which owns the Dickson retailing group.

It is only natural that David Li should be advancing the cause of his two Cambridge educated sons, Adrian and Brian, in the family’s Bank of East Asia of which he is chairman and chief executive. They both hold senior management positions but are not yet full board members.

What might be slightly surprising to people who think of Hong Kong as a meritocratic society is the number of other positions family members have accumulated which in theory should reflect their experience more than their family name.

Already at 32, Adrian Li is on the board of Ocean Park Corporation, a quasi-government entertainment complex. Adrian is an alternate to his father on the board of San Miguel Brewery. Adrian has also been tapped by the government to join the Vocational Training Council and the Small and Medium Enterprises Committee, and is a member of the advisory board of the Hong Kong Credit Insurance Corporation. In addition to those duties he is a member of the Guangzhou committee of the Chinese Peoples Political Consultative Conference. The latter position would have done no harm in getting an invitation to the inside track of the recent listing of Country Garden, a mainland company whose shares were available to a select group of Hong Kong tycoons prior to the public offering and could expect to see the shares go to an immediate premium.

Meanwhile, brother Brian is already on at least two government committees the Consumer Council, which is supposed to look after consumer interests (including those who use banks) and the Energy Advisory Committee, whatever that does.

The Li family mostly has a reputation for intelligence and some commitment to public service. Doubtless Adrian and Brian are in that mould. But their rapid induction into the system of government tells a lot about how Hong Kong works. Time and the removal of colonial rulers has reinforced the government-business network in a way that entrenches vested interests and closes off the aspirant professional and small business classes who want more say.