HONG KONG (Reuters) - Asia's richest man, Li Ka-shing, said on Thursday Hong Kong people would be "big losers" if legislators reject a government proposal for limited democracy, as some have threatened to do in their campaign for full democracy.
It was the sternest warning yet from the most powerful of the financial tycoons, who worry that demands for full democracy that brought thousands of protesters onto Hong Kong streets late last year will undermine stability and business.
Hong Kong legislators are due to vote in late June or early July on whether or not to accept a Beijing proposal, backed by the city government, that would allow all citizens a vote in the city's next leadership election in 2017, but only for candidates pre-screened by a pro-Beijing committee.
The protesters who camped out for two months last year and some city legislators reject that, and instead demand full and free democracy for Hong Kong.
"If the proposal got voted down, you and me, everyone in Hong Kong, will be big losers," Li, 86, said at an earnings briefing for his flagship companies, Cheung Kong (Holdings) Ltd and Hutchison Whampoa, whose combined market value is more than $100 billion.
"China gives us this policy, we turn it down, then who'd lose out if we regret it in the future? It's you and me ... I don't want to become a loser, especially a big loser."
A former British territory, Hong Kong is ruled under a "one country, two systems" formula that allows wide-ranging autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland and specifies universal suffrage as an eventual goal.
But Beijing ruled on Aug. 31 it would screen candidates who want to run for the city's chief executive in 2017, which democracy activists said rendered the concept of universal suffrage meaningless.
Democratic lawmakers who hold a one-third veto bloc in the 70-seat legislative council have vowed to vote down the proposal.
The Hong Kong government has warned that the city must make economic stability a top priority after the student-led protests last year paralyzed some city districts and unnerved authorities in Beijing.
But Li said he was upbeat about Hong Kong's outlook, adding that its biggest advantage was backing from mainland China.
Known as "Superman" in Hong Kong for his deal-making savvy, Li was among a group of Hong Kong tycoons who visited Beijing in September to discuss issues including Hong Kong affairs with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Reporting by Clare Jim and Donny Kwok; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Robert Birsel