Giving types

Tycoons new scheme to help poorer students study abroad

Zhang Xin and Pan Shiyi2 w

In 2010 Zhang Lei, a Chinese fund manager who earned an MBA at Yale’s School of Management, decided to donate $8,888,888 to his American alma mater. “It’s no overstatement to say that Yale School of Management changed my life. I learned so much there, and not just finance or entrepreneurship. I learned about freedom and the spirit of giving, which to me is a great reflection of the American spirit.”

This act of generosity – the largest ever donation to Yale’s business school by one of its graduates – went on to trigger a furious debate in China. Many netizens accused Zhang of being a “traitor” to the country, claiming that he had humiliated Chinese education. Some even called him a “lunatic” (see WiC45).

Against this backdrop, China’s reaction to a donation from Zhang Xin and Pan Shiyi to Harvard isn’t so surprising. Last week, the couple behind property developer SOHO China announced that they had signed a $15 million gift agreement with Harvard University. The couple also intend to gift another $100 million in scholarships to help Chinese students to study at prestigious universities overseas. After Harvard, their next target is Yale.

According to Zhang, SOHO China’s chief executive, studying abroad is a huge financial endeavour for most Chinese students, who have to self-fund their education in the US. So the SOHO China Scholarship will be aimed at encouraging less-well-off students to apply to study overseas. Zhang told Century Weekly that students with annual family incomes below Rmb65,000 ($10,500) would be eligible to apply for scholarships.

“I received financial aid when I studied abroad in England. Education changed my life. I hope the fund can help poor students afford college education,” Zhang also explained on her personal weibo page.

Pan and Zhang’s rag-to-riches story is well-known. Zhang worked as a factory worker in Hong Kong before studying on full scholarships at the University of Sussex and then Cambridge University in the UK. She later went on to become an investment banker at a US bank. Pan, meanwhile, grew up in impoverished Gansu province.

But the two are now the power couple of Chinese real estate, with combined wealth valued at some $3.6 billion, according to Hurun Report.

But like Zhang Lei’s gift to Yale, their act of generosity soon prompted a landslide of criticism at home. One popular conclusion was that the donation is designed to make it easier for their son – reportedly at high school in the US – to gain admission to a sought-after college. Other responses were similarly predictable, deriding the two for being “traitors” to China and “forgetting where they came from”.

“They despise their own country and people,” one netizen wrote.

“Pan has clearly forgotten about his ancestors. Gansu is still very impoverished so shouldn’t he be donating money to his hometown?” another thundered (in fact, the couple have established a foundation to support education in rural areas of China too).

Others voiced support. “A lot of people are saying Pan Shiyi and his wife spent $15 million to buy their son a ticket to Harvard. However, we shouldn’t find fault with how they decide to spend their own money,” one netizen ventured.

Famous blogger Feng Qingyang also sounded more supportive. “Perhaps Pan actually really wanted to donate to Chinese universities but after weighing the pros and cons he found that donations to institutions in China are often deployed inefficiently, leading to a lot of wastage?” he suggested. “China has a problem of having ‘first-class students, second-grade teachers, and third-class management.’”

Zhang, meanwhile, responded to the criticism, arguing that without funding for poor students, good education would be reserved only for the wealthy. “Our scholarships will change this phenomenon,” she wrote.

But that did little to appease her bitterest critics. They were soon back on the attack, arguing that the best thing that Pan and Zhang could do for the least well-off is to sell houses at lower prices. “Your houses are sold for astronomical prices. Why don’t you do something about that instead?” one angry voice persisted on weibo.

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