The charitable foundation of Hong Kong’s richest man, Li Ka-shing, said it had doled out more than HK$1 billion (US$128 million) in cash to about 28,000 micro and small businesses that bore the brunt of the impact from the months of turmoil convulsing the city.
As the social unrest triggered by a now-pulled China extradition bill nears its half-year mark, the local economy is beginning to suffer as Hong Kong plunges into a technical recession.
Numerous SMEs, particularly those in the retail, catering, accommodation and travel sectors, have been grappling with lost sales throughout the past months as the chaos has scared away tourists, while locals stay at home when demonstrators scuffle with police in street battles.
Li, who is worth at least US$45 billion with his business spanning from personal care products to public utilities across Asia, Europe and North America, announced at the end of October a HK$1 billion “crunch time instant relief fund” to be given out via his foundation to aid SMEs and licensed vendors and hawkers to help them get through the difficult time.
Money from the aid scheme, arguably the largest largesse from a business tycoon in the past decade, has been swiftly dispensed within only two months to roughly 28,000 businesses, with each receiving about HK$35,600 on average and some getting as much as HK$60,000.
Li’s foundation noted in a press release that the final batch of applicants randomly selected through a computer ballot would receive the money either via autopay or cashier’s orders before mid-December.
It added that Li had specifically requested additional manual vetting, by foundation staff as well as accountants from PricewaterhouseCoopers, of all applications not approved by an artificial intelligence-enabled selection algorithm. Some small enterprises that had at first been disqualified have now also been included as eligible.
It was reported that to further expedite the approval process, the foundation also tapped the expertise of a team from Google Cloud, whose AI and optical character reader solutions came in handy to automatically convert images of business registration certificates and licenses and storefront photos uploaded by applicants into machine-encoded text to set up individual profiles for vetting.
It only took three weeks for the team to digitalize and convert photos and files from 43,000 applicants to save the toil of manually inputting and verifying all the information.
Other than PwC and Google, the foundation also partnered with HSBC, Welab and Hongkong Post for the scheme.
The streamlined vetting and speedy handouts to help out the many cash-strapped merchants, caterers and retailers contrasted sharply with the Hong Kong government’s cumbersome disbursement programs to aid SMEs and grassroots families.
This was especially true as numerous applicants for the government’s HK$4,000 in cash relief for the underprivileged announced more than one year ago are still wondering when they can receive the meager amount of money.
Earlier this year, Li, as well as entities under his flagship conglomerate CK Hutchison Holdings, found themselves on the receiving end of fierce recriminations from local and mainland Chinese newspapers and netizens, after Chinese state media took potshots at Li’s appeal to the government to “give a way out” to youngsters arrested for rioting or assaulting police.
Li, 91, later issued an open letter, saying he had a clear conscience and had long grown accustomed to the smear campaigns and “demolition jobs” in his senior age.