HK tycoon scion, gov’t advisor, Sweden hand Lau Ming-wai buys former submarine base in Sweden (as favour to Swedish navy) [UPDATE: Navy still not happy]

Hong Kong government-connected businessman Lau Ming-wai 刘鸣炜 has bought the port of Fårösund, formerly a submarine base, through a company he fully owns, according to Dagens Nyheter and The Maritime Executive. A spokesperson for Lau’s Swedish company has said the sole motivation for the purchase is to let the Swedish navy use the base for free. The navy used to own the base, then sold it for $2m, then tried to buy it back, but a Russian investor offered $9m for it. Lau’s company, called Artmax, reportedly asked the government if they would like to lease the base from them, but the offer was rejected. In a remarkable display of selflessness, Artmax bought the base anyway and will let the navy use it without a lease. Le beurre et l’argent du beurre, indeed $2m of it.

Fårösund is located at the northern tip of Gotland, facing the island of Fårö across a sound, whence the name. As for the island, the name doesn’t necessarily mean ‘sheep island’ (as ‘Faroe’ does): instead, the first element could be related to fara ‘travel’. The island is already mentioned as Faroy in the 13th-century Gutasaga. The location used to host an artillery regiment and serve as a submarine base. The navy’s renewed interest in it is seemingly related to the worsening relations with Russia.

This is not Lau’s first act of generosity towards Sweden, or the most expensive. In 2015, he donated ~$50m to the Karolinska Institute to establish a research centre in regenerative medicine in Stockholm and Hong Kong. The centre is named after him. Hong Kong media have reported Lau has a particular liking for Sweden, travels there several times a year and “knows basic Swedish”.

Besides his business activities, Lau enjoys political appointments. He’s the chairman of the Commission on Youth (青年事务委员会), a government advisory body, in which capacity he generated some controversy in 2015 after telling young Hongkongers they should ‘save for flats‘. Lau’s business is real estate: he’s the chairman of Chinese Estates (华人职业), a position he inherited when his father Joseph Lau (Lau Luen-Hung 刘銮雄) was sentenced to a 5 year jail term for corruption and money laundering by a Macau court.

Old Lau (大刘), as he is popularly known, has not served his sentence and remains at large, since Hong Kong and Macau, presumably part of the same country, don’t have an extradition treaty. He remains in Hong Kong, where his extravagant acquisitions continue to make news: over the years, he has spent tens of millions on such items as the dearest Warhol Mao, rare diamonds, such registration plates as ‘I L0VEU2‘ and several cubic metres of expensive wine.

Besides his government-assigned role advising the young to become his potential customers, Lau Jr is the vice-chairman of the Bauhinia Foundation, a think tank with strong HK government connections. His Mainland government contacts are illustrated by an appointment to the Sichuan Province Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body.

Lau’s selfless decision means that, for the first time, a former naval base up north has ended up in Chinese hands. An attempt by General Nice to buy an abandoned base in Greenland was rejected by the Danish government last year, as I discussed in some detail in January.

[UPDATE (May 6): The Navy is not happy with Lau’s offer and still would like to eventually own the port, says SvD. It’s not clear how they’re planning to achieve that strategic goal, and why they didn’t think about it a couple of months ago when offering too little money for it, or a couple of decades ago, before selling it in the first place. ‘Expropriation would be a possibility’ but it isn’t being currently considered.]

Thanks to Victor Mair, who alerted me to the Maritime Executive story.