Back in 2014, billionaire couple Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin made headlines when they gifted $15 million to Harvard and another $10 million to Yale as part of their $100 million initiative to fund disadvantaged students from China studying at top institutions across the globe.
Their generosity quickly sparked debate at home, however, with netizens saying that the tycoons behind property firm SOHO China should be spending the money on education in China rather than at elite US colleges.
“There are so many schools in China that are so impoverished that they don’t even have decent buildings. Some areas are so poor that they can’t even afford to pay the teachers,” one wrote. “They despise their own country and their own people,” another lambasted.
Pan is now back in the media glare for his charity efforts – or the supposed lack thereof. In late January he published a letter of support for Wuhan’s battle against the coronavirus outbreak. He ended the post with “Come on, Wuhan!” but eagle-eyed netizens were soon highlighting that SOHO China wasn’t on the list of companies that have made donations to the containment effort.
Social media warriors called Pan out, questioning why he was so generous in giving money to Ivy League universities but not to Wuhan, which is struggling with shortages in medical supplies and other hospital resources.
Some drew comparisons with other donors, like Jack Ma, who has donated Rmb1 billion ($142.6 million) to Wuhan through Alibaba. He has contributed Rmb100 million more to research efforts for a coronavirus vaccine through his Jack Ma Foundation.
“You are a parasite just get out of here. We should leave him with nothing,” one netizen thundered at Pan’s supposed stinginess.
“As an entrepreneur that has made a fortune thanks to the government’s favourable policies, and as a celebrity benefiting from social media, you are definitely expected to do something at a time when the country is facing such a serious epidemic. You may not choose to donate but you have to do more than just say, ‘Come on Wuhan’,” scolded Wu Qilun, a widely-followed investment consultant, on his personal weibo.
The property tycoon’s eldest son then came to his father’s defence, explaining that Pan had tried to send some masks to Wuhan’s doctors but they hadn’t reached their destination. “I haven’t even figured out the whereabouts of the masks and you want to touch my money?” he protested. Some donors have been concerned in the past that their contributions haven’t always reached the intended recipients, given the somewhat chequered reputations of organisations like the China Red Cross, which deals with disaster relief (see WiC113).
Others are cynical about the motives behind charitable giving in general, seeing it as a transactional exercise rather than a philanthropic one.
Hence the backhanded compliment from another netizen on Pan’s situation: “Pan Shiyi donated money to the US and in exchange, two of his sons went to Yale and Harvard. But if he were to donate to China, the money is really gone. So clearly he is a very smart capitalist.”
That’s a bit harsh: the SOHO China Foundation – set up by both Pan and his wife and business partner Zhang Xin – has funded teacher training that it says has benefited over 80,000 primary school students in rural communities in western China.
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