After weeks of public silence, the tycoon believed to be Hong Kong's richest man pulled out the stops when finally he finally weighed in on the unrest seething in his backyard. Li Ka-shing, a mega-investor worth more than $27 billion at last check, took out full-page ads in two of his local newspapers, the Hong Kong Economic Times and Hong Kong Economic Journal.
Dominating the center of the page published in the Hong Kong Economic Times is a bold red circle striking out the classical Chinese characters for "violence." Orbiting the central characters are brief statements that seem harmless enough, if a bit useless in their unimaginative blandness. "The best cause can become the worst result," one says; another tells readers to "Love China, Love Hong Kong, Love yourself."
Demonstrators in Hong Kong — who have been protesting a bill that would permit the extradition of suspects to mainland China — could not have been particularly pleased to find one of the region's most influential tycoons apparently staying neutral, expressing a bland sentiment that wouldn't have looked out of place on a tote bag.
But take another look at the page — as scholar Victor Mair did last weekend. The professor, who teaches Chinese literature at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a blog post Sunday that he and other Internet sleuths dredged up a different meaning lurking concealed beneath the surface.
"He gives these very, very cryptic suggestions," Mair explains. "Most people read these things, and they don't know exactly what he means, because he's intentionally trying to be enigmatic."
The obvious sign to readers to look deeper rests in Li's decision to use classical Chinese, which is a departure from the kind of writing you would find elsewhere in the paper and is "so terse, it's almost like a stenographic code," he says. "You almost have to decipher it, decode it. It's not explicit grammatically or any other way."
And once you begin decoding the text, some clues to a different meaning emerge. Take the final characters of each of the eight lines surrounding the central "no violence warning" and combine them, and Mair says you get a rather pointed message instead: "The cause and the result depend upon China. Let Hong Kong rule itself."
"So he's given a recommendation — like, 'No violence; China's in overall charge of things, but let Hong Kong take care of its business too,' " Mair says. In a political environment that has little tolerance for dissent, he says, that statement is "pretty brave" from a magnate he describes as Hong Kong's version of Warren Buffett, a wealthy, highly visible investor who is often asked to pontificate on current events.
Li's second ad, the one published in Hong Kong Economic Journal, gets even more cryptic — and still, according to Mair, even more bold. It's just a couple of lines from an old poem by Li Xian, a crown prince from the seventh century who killed himself — partly under pressure from his mother, who saw him as an unworthy heir to the empire.
"The melon of Huangtai cannot endure further picking," the dauphin's poem reads, apparently referring to himself.
"I think Li Ka-shing made a very, very bold statement here," Mair says, explaining that he sees the excerpt as a message directed at Chinese President Xi Jinping and his government. "He's saying, you know, 'If you keep pestering, bothering, snapping, sniping away at Hong Kong, it's going to die.' "
Brave, perhaps, but the purportedly hidden messages raise a question: If these ads are this easy to decode, and if they're directed partly at Chinese leadership anyway, why not dispense with all this trouble and just say it outright?
Mair says that by using this indirect tack, Li can always blame the suspected message on an unintended coincidence or overreading. "It's plausible deniability on the front page of the two big financial papers in Hong Kong!"
For what it's worth, Li Ka-shing's hidden message — presuming Mair's interpretation bears out — has plenty of precedent in Chinese history, including recently.
An editor of China's Southern Metropolis Daily was fired in 2016, for instance, after a hidden message in the paper's front-page headline appeared to criticize Beijing's suppression of the media. And in 2010, a high-profile attorney signed a written confession that, when a reader strung together the first characters of its six sentences, revealed a hidden message: "I was forced to confess guilt in exchange for a lesser sentence."
Mair says that Li has been known to embed quietly bold comments in otherwise innocuous statements — and he has even used that Li Xian poem. Asked in 2016, less than two years after the umbrella protest movement, whether Hong Kong's chief executive at the time ought to stand for reelection, Li simply cited the poem.
The message then was similar to the one we hear from Li now, according to Mair's interpretation: "Don't pursue the same bad policy that you've been pursuing. You have a failed policy. Stand down."