Li Ka Shing left a cryptic phrase about melons on the front page of Hong Kong’s papers. Here’s what it really means.

Both ads were signed: “by a Hong Kong citizen, Li Ka Shing”.
Reuters, Twitter/Dystopia99

Hong Kong’s richest man, Li Ka Shing, made the city’s front page news on Friday (Aug 16) – but not in the way you’d expect.

The 91-year-old property tycoon bought front-page advertisements in major papers and used them to publish two messages in Mandarin to citizens.

The first version of Li’s ad prominently featured a red line over the Chinese characters for “violence”, accompanied by the headline “The best motivations can sometimes lead to the worst outcomes”.

On either side of the page were the phrases “love China, love Hong Kong, love yourself”, and “love freedom, love tolerance, love law and order”.

Below them was one last phrase: “Overcome anger with love”.

Both ads were signed: “by a Hong Kong citizen, Li Ka Shing”.

These are Li’s first public comments on increasingly violent clashes this week between police and protesters in the airport and in Sham Shui Po.

Reuters reported that over 700 people have been arrested since the protests began in June.

China has condemned protesters’ actions and sent counter-terrorism troops to the Hong Kong border, while the UN’s Human Rights commission said it was “concerned” by the escalating violence between protesters and police.

While Li did not indicate his support for either police or protesters, a theory spreading on social media claims the ad contains a hidden message, which can be read by combining the last character of each phrase to form a sentence.

The sentence can be interpreted as: ”Allow Hong Kong to police itself, since everything that led to the current situation began within it”.

Li’s second ad was far more ambiguous, and merely comprised a phrase referencing an ancient Chinese poem about picking melons.

The text above it read: “Just as I have said before”.

According to the South China Morning Post, Li used the same phrase in 2016 when asked if former Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying would run for a second term.

The poem the phrase references is titled “Huang Tai Gua Ci”, and was penned by Tang dynasty poet Li Xian before his death.

On the surface, it dispenses advice about picking ripe melons: Picking one can improve the taste of the rest, but picking too many can cause the vine to cease producing fruit.

In reality, the poem was an analogy for political casualties, and was used by Li Xian – an exiled crown prince – to rebuke his mother, Empress Wu Zetian, for plotting the death of his brother and himself to secure the throne.

Overall, the phrase can be interpreted as a warning to those in power not to persecute their own, or risk destroying their legacy.

In his ad, Li did not elaborate which parties were in power, and which were being persecuted.

However, he later said through a spokesman that “investing in the future would always bear fruit for Hong Kong,” Reuters reported.

“The young always fear the future has nothing to do with them,” Reuters quoted Li as saying, adding that he believed “the government heard the messages from the protesters loud and clear and [were] diligently racking their brains for solutions”.

Meanwhile, Li’s cryptic message led some netizens to interpret the phrase their own way, with one artwork depicting China as the party in power, and the melons as its autonomous regions: Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang.

Read also: