Li Ka-Shing’s College Donations Keep Him on Beijing’s Good Side

Criticized for selling Chinese assets, the Hong Kong tycoon has poured some $1 billion into Shantou University, which he founded in 1981.

CK Hutchison Holdings Ltd. and Cheung Kong Property Holdings Ltd. Chairman Li Ka-shing Interview

Billionaire Li Ka-shing, chairman of CK Hutchison Holdings Ltd. and Cheung Kong Property Holdings Ltd., sits for a photograph in Hong Kong, China, on Thursday, June 16, 2016. Hong Kong’s richest man stepped up his calls for Britons to vote in favor of staying in the European Union as the world braces for the outcome of this week’s vote. Photographer: Calvin Sit/Bloomberg

Calvin Sit/Bloomberg

Hong Kong Billionaire Li Ka-shing has long been a builder. In the twilight of his career, Li, 88, is finishing what may be his biggest project, a university to restore his reputation in China, build a bridge between the mainland and the wider world, and leave a lasting legacy.

Asia’s second-wealthiest man has donated more than $1 billion to Shantou University, which he founded in 1981 near his hometown of Chaozhou in southeastern Guangdong province and which remains China’s lone public university to receive private funding. Next month his Li Ka Shing Foundation will officially open a $100 million sports and entertainment complex on the campus.

Shantou University Sports Park, a 650,000-square-foot facility that contains an Olympic-size swimming pool, a conference center and an arena with seating for almost 6,300, will be home to the university’s basketball team, the Transformers. Designed by U.S. architect David Manica, the complex resembles a spacecraft from a science fiction movie.

“The investment he has put into Shantou is quite inspiring,” Greg Turner, general manager of the sports park, says of Li. “Students who graduate from the university will be future leaders of the country and — fingers crossed — future sports stars and leaders of China’s sports industry,” Turner adds.

The sports park sits opposite the sprawling campus of the Guangdong Technion Israel Institute of Technology, which is scheduled for completion in 2018. In 2013, Li’s foundation gave $130 million to this joint venture between the province and Israel’s top technical university.

Such generosity stands in stark contrast to Li’s strategic asset sales in mainland China during the past two years. His various companies have unloaded billions of dollars’ worth of commercial property, including a $2 billion project in Shanghai’s Pudong district, to free up capital for investment in Europe, particularly the U.K., where he has allocated an estimated $50 billion to ports, water treatment facilities and other infrastructure.


In response, China’s state-owned media have branded Li unpatriotic. Late last year an unnamed commentator at the Liaowang Institute, a think tank linked to the official Xinhua News Agency, accused him of abandoning the country and undermining public confidence by selling off holdings at a time of “economic tension” and slowing growth.

Li, who denounced such criticisms as smacking of “Cultural Revolution–style thinking,” has been trying to end this spat. In a recent television interview, he said that China’s long-term economic future is bright. When it comes to mending fences with Beijing, though, his latest donation to Shantou University may speak louder than words.

Follow Allen Cheng on Twitter at @acheng87.