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Hong Kong Journal: Superboy, the barrister and how to lose $97 million

Superboy stumbles, sort of

Pity poor Richard Li, the youngest son of the richest man in Asia. He, like George W. Bush, has spent most of his life trying to get out from under the shadow of his father, Li Kai Shing. But try as he might, Li the younger just doesn’t have the magic Midas touch that his father wields. The Chinese have dubbed Li the elder “Superman” for his money-making prowess and dubbed Li the younger “Superboy,” although his own cape appears to be getting a little frayed.

The latest example comes as Richard Li takes PCCW private. PCCW is the main local telecom provider in Hong Kong, which Li acquired from Britain’s Cable & Wireless for $28 billion. Li had grand plans for the telecom service, but has stumbled since the acquisition nine years ago. Last week shareholders approved a plan to take PCCW private in a deal valued at $2 billion, but despite the victory, Li’s move is under a cloud as authorities investigate claims of vote rigging.

Li originally planned to take the company private in December, but that was derailed when Li raised his offer at the time. PCCW shares have collapsed from more than HK$100 at one point to their last trade at HK$4.17. Adding to the price collapse, Li has tried three times in the past three years to sell, in part or whole, the company’s core telecom assets. The most dramatic episode came in 2006 when mainland China intervened to block the sale of the company’s telecom network to foreign bidders.

The Barrister

Despite the jokes, lawyers are actually some of my favorite people. My mother is a lawyer, my eldest brother is a lawyer, and I’ve covered the courts for years and know many lawyers and appreciate their ability to save my derriere from time to time.

And here in Hong Kong, were I ever to get in trouble, there’s one lawyer that I would turn to: Kevin Egan. Unfortunately, Egan, long the bane of Hong Kong’s official anti-corruption agency, may not be available come Feb. 12.

That’s the day all of Hong Kong will learn whether or not Egan will serve time for “perverting the course of justice” in a case where, at least to the layman, Egan was just doing what any good lawyer would do.

Egan was convicted in 2006 and sentenced to two years in prison for what prosecutors claim was his attempt to “disclose the name” of a potential witness in a case to journalists who were covering the case. Egan and a fellow lawyer, both of whom are regulars at the bar at the Foreign Correspondents Club, say all they did was file a habeas corpus petition to get their client — the witness — released from the custody of the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

Egan has a long history of fighting the ICAC and I myself played a minor role in the case. When Egan was under investigation, I was president of the Foreign Correspondents Club and Egan was serving as second vice president, a position he has held for many years so that the club can benefit from his legal advice.

While working one morning, I received a call from the club secretary, telling me, “Mr. Driskill, the ICAC called this morning.” Believe me, in Hong Kong, it is not the kind of telephone call you want to receive. The ICAC requested that the club turn over Egan’s bar bills. After hurried discussions with my fellow board members, we decided that because we are a private club and because the ICAC had “asked” for the records and not subpoenaed them, we would respectfully decline their request.

A friend of mine and I however, did buy Egan a bottle of champagne and had him sign the bill, which we then framed and hung on the bar in the main room of the club. It is still there today.

We’ll find out on Feb. 12 whether it was such a funny idea.

How to lose $97 billion

The latest Forbes’ rich list came out and the results weren’t pretty for Hong Kong’s wealthiest. The 40 top money-makers lost a cumulative grand total of $97 billion as of the end of 2008, according to Forbes.

Property developers, as usual, remained at the top of the rich list in Hong Kong, but poor Stanley Ho, the gambling king of Macau, fell to No. 19 on the list as his holdings fell to $1 billion from $9 billion in 2007.

The top three on the list were unchanged from 2008. Li Kai Shing was at No. 1 with $16.2 billion, down from $24 billion in 2008. He was followed by the Kwok family, which owns Sun Hung Kai Properties at $10.8 billion, down from $23 billion in 2008. Rounding out the top three was Lee Shau-Kee, chairman of Henderson Land Development, who was worth $9 billion, down from $23 billion.

Overall, the total number of Hong Kong billionaires fell to 19 from 40 in the past year.