Richard Li:

Leading Asia into the New Millenium

 

Ben Goertzel

 

 

So far the computer and communications revolution has been primarily an American, and secondarily a European, phenomenon.The rest of the world has been playing catch-up.But thereís no guarantee this will continue to be the case.The very nature of this revolution is to integrate, to globalize, to spread progress and vision in all directions, paying no heed to national boundaries, at worst temporarily restrained by constraints of class and culture.††

 

Sure, this phenomenal boundaryless spreading is intrinsic to the technology.Itís all about networks Ė networks of computers, creating and enhancing networks of people.Networks spread information like nothing else.But just as this fabulous technology is all being developed by human programmers exercising human creativity, so the spread of technology throughout nations is being carried out by human businesspeople, applying tremendous skill, inventiveness and intercultural savvy to the difficult but rewarding task of remaking the world.

 

For a combination of technical and sociological reasons, technologies develop differently in different parts of the world.Cell phones spread through Europe much faster than through America, but the Net has developed far more furiously in the US than anywhere.Africa has lagged behind due to a lack of money, and basic infrastructure.Asia, on the other hand, presents a bit of a paradox: tremendous wealth side by side with rampant poverty; advanced science and technology coupled with erratic, sometimes miserable infrastructure; governments that want to encourage inventiveness and entrepreneurship while suppressing political freedom.The task of remaking Asia in the image of the technological revolution is a huge one, and one man above all has taken on this task as his own: Richard Li.

 

Li first emerged into the public spotlight in the early 1990ís, with the $950 million sale of Star TV, Asia's first satellite delivered cable television system.He was 28 years old, heíd started the company only five years before, and by the time of Star TVís sale to Rupert Murdochís News Corp., its five channels we being seen in 50 million households in 38 countries.The potential for satellite-based TV in Asia seems obvious in retrospect: itís a clever use of modern technology to bypass the lack of traditional infrastructure.But itís a mark of business brilliance to make moves that look obvious in retrospect, but werenít seen by others at the time.

 

His next headline-grabbing move was at the turn of the millennium.During 1999 he milked the Internet bubble for all it was worth, making deals like crazy until at one point his technology investment firm Pacific Century Cyberworks (PCCW) had a higher market capitalization than amazon.com.Then, perhaps cannily foreseeing the collapse of the Net bubble in early 2000, shortly after the turn of the millennium he announced a shocker deal: the purchase of a controlling interest in behemoth Hong Kong Cable and Wireless, in exchange for stock in PCCW.His 10-month-old start-up beat out esteemed institution Singapore Telecom to get the deal.When the stock market crashed in late March and other Internet tycoons were going broke, he was in the midst of finalizing his move to transform his Net riches into conventional-economy riches.The deal looked shaky for a while, but he pulled it off.

 

The plan, over the next few years, is use Cable and Wireless as a platform to spread computer and communication technology through all of Southeast Asia, becoming the dominant ISP, content provider and technology provider.He laughs at attempts by American and European firms to invade his space.Amazon, Yahoo, News Corp. and so forth donít understand Chinese psychology, and donít have the connections needed to flourish in Chinaís guanxi-based economy.Li has all the technological vision of leading Western firms, and then some; but equally importantly, he also has a deep understanding of the Southeast Asian customer base, and a demonstrated skill at navigating the complex dynamics of the Asian political and business worlds.

 

Behind these remarkable achievements is, not surprisingly, a complex,brilliant, and sometimes difficult personality, and a unique journey through life.Liís is not exactly a Horatio Alger story: his father, Li Ka-shing, is Asiaís greatest tycoon, controlling a vast empire ranging from property to ports and telecoms.The $125 million with which Richard started Star TV, thus launching his current hi-tech empire, came from his father.

 

A recent poll rated Li Ka-shing as more influential than his friend Jiang Zemin, the Chinese president.Richardís less adventurous older brother is the heir apparent to Li Ka-shingís business empire; but so far, Richard has demonstrated more of the large-scale ambition that led his father to build $9 billion in wealth.Joking about the huge shadow of Li Ka-shing, Richard once spoke of living with "a chip on my shoulder as big as a railroad tie."

 

Given this family history, itís not exactly surprising to find a man driven by a need for success and excitement.Heís a licensed rescue diver, a licensed pilot, and avid jet skier.But complementing these characteristics, there is a scientistís deep need to understand the world around him.†† A colleague, for instance, recalls scuba-diving with him: While the others were enjoying the coral, Richard tested his tank and valves thoroughly until heíd graspedevery last physical mechanism underlying them.

 

Somewhat like Bill Gates, he still nurses academic inclinations.Gates, a Harvard dropout, once spent a rare vacation watching physics lectures on video.Li, who completed his computer engineering degree at Stanford, still talks about how, when he was studying there, he was denied enrollmentin a course on Artificial Intelligence because he was a foreign national.Now Li owns a 10% stake in the American AI company Webmind, Inc., and plans to play a role in the dissemination of artificial intelligence throughout the worldís computer and communication networks.†† He speculates that, sometime in his mid-40ís, he might take a couple years off and study at a university in California.†† But this is a far-off dream: at 33, heís nowhere near ready to slow down.He still has at least Asia to transform, and has been known to glance toward Africa, South America, and even Europe and the US as well.


Also like Bill Gates, Li has an obsessive streak: when he sets a goal, heíll understand everything necessary to achieve it, and keep on pushing until itís done.He can be arrogant and insolent at time, which has jarred some colleagues accustomed to a more traditionally Asian way of doing things.But this trait is palliated by yet another Gates parallel: the ability to recruit smart people and then listen to them. The Cable and Wireless purchase, for example, was not his own idea: it came out of another member of his team, and was nursed and debated within the team for a while before it was really taken seriously.He works very closely with his top advisers, relying on them to apprise him of the condition of the various companies PCCW owns; he and his trusted henchmen are constantly flying around the globe solving one problem after another in the various interrelated firms, making one deal after another, keeping the whole complex network of business growing.

 

Richard Li is pushing into the 21íst century with a clear vision of the future, and quite probably the means and ability to make this future happen, and place himself at the center of it.His complex overlapping network of businesses mirrors the complexity of the new economy, and also, fascinatingly, the traditional Chinese view of the world as a complex network of overlapping, interpenetrating phenomena.His business practice combines a mastery of the Chinese art of relationship with a headstrong American obstinacy, gutsiness and drive.The Hong Kong Cable and Wireless purchase will allow him to lead the development and dissemination of 3G (third-generation) mobile technology throughout Southeast Asia.His newly built Network of the World (NOW) is a powerful Web content engine; his Pacific Century Matrix leads in the area of satellite development; and with Cyberport, his hi-tech real estate venture, heís even moving back into the domain of Li Ka-shing.The list goes on and on.

 

One thing is clear: this is exactly the kind of visionary businessman thatís needed to spread the computer and communication revolution throughout the globe.If Chinese donít have telephones to access the Net, then feed them the Net through satellite-based cable TV.If Western firms canít produce content suitable for Asian audiences, well, one can always fund a dozen firms to make homegrown content.If the business environment isnít suitable, create a whole new hi-tech business mini-city and invite Yahoo, IBM, Oracle and a few of your other close friends.As the technological revolution unfolds, social networks come together with communication and computer networks in complex and subtle ways, and this process is seen nowhere more clearly than in the bold strategic vision and brilliant tactical deal-making of a man like Richard Li.