Tea Leaf Nation

Are Chinese Donations to American Universities Unpatriotic?

Netizens want Chinese money to fund Chinese schools, but the country's billionaires have reason to hesitate.

Harvard University / Fair Use
Harvard University / Fair Use

On the morning of September 8, Harvard University celebrated what school President Drew Gilpin Faust called an historic moment after it received a $350 million gift from a wealthy Hong Kong family. The gift, to the Harvard School of Public Health, is the largest ever in the university’s 378 years of history. It may sound like a victory for Chinese soft power, but many Chinese netizens are angry that the money isn’t being directed toward domestic concerns.

Criticism was particularly fierce on Weibo, China’s Twitter. "Why don’t you donate to our own colleges, traitor?" one user asked in response to the news. "They make money from Chinese, and benefit Americans," complained another respondent. One user asked why China’s rich don’t donate to poor areas in Western China, where higher education enrollment lags the national average. 

The family behind the donation is the Chans, who hail from Hong Kong, the semi-autonomous city to the south that has often clashed with Beijing. But earlier outcry also greeted announcements of Chinese mainland billionaire donating money to U.S. universities. In July, Chinese real estate tycoon Pan Shiyi and his wife Zhang Xin donated $15 million to Harvard to establish a scholarship program aimed at sending poor Chinese students to the prestigious school. Despite the scholarship’s focus, many Chinese criticized Pan for his donation — in an Aug. 21 interview with state-run China Daily, economist Yao Shujie accused Pan of "forgetting that his skin was yellow." Earlier, in Jan. 2010, Zhang Lei, a graduate of Yale University, made an $8.88 million donation to his alma mater, the largest gift that Yale had ever received from a young alumnus at that time. Although Zhang said the financial support was intended to strengthen U.S.-China relations and fund China-related activities, the gift still outraged many Chinese, who questioned why a talent developed in China should send money abroad. (Zhang, who founded Hillhouse Capital Management, a China-based hedge with a portfolio worth more than $889 million, studied international finance at Renmin University of China in Beijing before attending Yale in 1998.)

Chinese billionaires with the itch to give surely consider the opaque financial conditions of China’s colleges and universities, where strict hierarchic systems often serve as hotbeds for corruption. According to Southern Weekly, a liberal newspaper in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou, 29 high-level administrators from well-known Chinese colleges and universities have lost their jobs because of corruption allegations since 2012. On July 29, the Ministry of Education announced that it would augment colleges’ public disclosures with auditing from third-party agencies. 

Until the 2,000-plus Chinese colleges and universities get more transparent with their finances, many Chinese say they will remain hesitant about donating to the country’s schools. It’s a matter of "trust and honesty," Cui Yongyuan, a former state television host-turned-public intellectual, wrote on Weibo. "If we donate to domestic colleges, how much money will actually be used on education?" another Weibo user asked. "When Chinese colleges are managed as well as Harvard, then someone will be willing to donate."

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