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Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing, chairman of Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. and Cheung Kong (Holdings) Ltd, looks on during a news conference after an annual general meeting in Hong Kong Thursday, May 18, 2006. (Kin Cheung/AP/Kin Cheung/AP)
Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing, chairman of Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. and Cheung Kong (Holdings) Ltd, looks on during a news conference after an annual general meeting in Hong Kong Thursday, May 18, 2006. (Kin Cheung/AP/Kin Cheung/AP)

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“Li Ka-shing stays in the whole game,” says Winarsky, who profited alongside Li when Apple bought Siri. “He is more than a gap-filler. He believes in technology that is disruptive.”

These disruptive startups help make his larger holdings more cutting edge. “Making a business from these investments is secondary,” Li says of his Web portfolio. “It is more important that we are learning so much.” For example, Li’s mobile phone interface designer, INQ, got early access to Skype, Facebook and Spotify-ready phones.

Of late Li has become particularly fascinated by the sweeping potential of artificial intelligence across all his businesses. In addition to his $7.5-million investment in Siri, the now ubiquitous iPhone virtual assistant, he gave $300,000 last December to a startup that uses AI in its summarization search engine, Summly, run by a 16-year-old. One of the biggest AI impacts, he believes, will come in education, where customized learning will become “closely knitted” to individual devices. “AI has reached an inflection point,” he says. “Combined with the high-speed mobile network, disruption in several industries will be unavoidable.”

To understand Li’s consistent passion for education, it’s instructive to review Li’s early life, a life story as well known in the worldwide Chinese diaspora as Lincoln’s rail-splitting days are here. (Shanghai Book City, the city’s biggest bookstore, carries ten different unauthorized books on Li and his investment strategies.) Born in Chaozhou in China’s Guangdong Province in 1928, Li and his family had to flee during the Sino-Japanese war.

“When I was in elementary school the Japanese dropped bombs on Chaozhou,” he recalls. They settled in nearby Hong Kong. Not long after their arrival Li’s father, who had been a primary school principal in China, died from tuberculosis. “The most terrible experience during my childhood,” recalls Li. “I, too, was infected. The burden of poverty and this bitter taste of helplessness and isolation sort of branded on my heart forever the questions that still drive me. Is it possible to reshape one’s destiny? Is it possible to minimize challenges through lessening complexities? And is it possible to enhance chances for success through meticulous planning?”

Li had to seek these answers and teach himself without the benefit of formal education. At age 12 he quit school and started as an apprentice in a watch-strap factory. By 14 he was working full-time in a plastics trading company to help support his family. In 1950 Li quit to start his own business making plastic toys and everyday items. He retooled his factory to focus on plastic flowers after learning about their popularity in Italy from trade journals, figuring they offered him better business prospects.

He named his first company Cheung Kong, after the great Yangtze River, whose power comes from a confluence of countless smaller streams.

With profits from plastics, Li began buying up apartment buildings and factories throughout the city during the 1960s, a period of intense social unrest marked with Maoist-tinged riots and bombings, and reaped huge returns when the market recovered. In 1979 he became the first Chinese to buy a controlling stake in one of the old British trading houses, then struggling Hutchison Whampoa. In 1987, the year he appeared on our first-ever global billionaires ranking, Li and affiliates paid $500-million for about half of Canada’s money-losing Husky Oil ; it has been through restructurings and mergers, but he still personally has a stake worth over $8-billion. Thriving from large investments in booming China, he has scooped up more profits from its real estate and spending boom. His net worth is $25.5-billion, down slightly in the past year but easily outperforming the Hong Kong stock market and enough for him to move back into the top ten worldwide for the first time since 2007.

One of the great empire builders of our time, Li continues to push into new territories around the world. In 2010 Li’s Cheung Kong made its biggest acquisition, picking up U.K. Power Networks for $9.1-billion; it now supplies power to approximately 8 million Brits. Less than a year later it bought Northumbrian Water, which supplies clean drinking water to 4.5 million people in England and sewerage services to another 2.7 million. Hutchison Whampoa, one of Europe’s largest mobile carriers, paid $1.7-billion in February to acquire the third-biggest mobile phone operator in Austria.

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