Karolinska’s Asia campus donation questioned

Sweden’s renowned Karolinska Institute, one of the world’s leading medical universities, has come under scrutiny following the announcement earlier this month that it would set up a branch centre in Hong Kong after receiving a philanthropic US$50 million donation.

The record donation to the Karolinska Institute, or KI, a publicly funded university, came from Hong Kong businessman Lau Ming-wai, chair of property company Chinese Estates Holdings, and will fund a new centre for regenerative medicine with campuses in Sweden and Hong Kong. It will be the university’s first research campus in Asia.

However, it later emerged that the son of CY Leung – Hong Kong’s embattled Chief Executive who has become unpopular since student pro-democracy protests erupted last year – is currently conducting medical research at Karolinska.

A 16 February report in Hong Kong’s Chinese language Next magazine raised the issue of a potential conflict of interest.

The son, Leung Chuen-yan, recently obtained a PhD at the University of Cambridge, UK, and was awarded a fellowship to research heart disease therapeutics at KI in Stockholm beginning this year.

The Chief Executive’s Office in Hong Kong issued a statement, saying that “the admission of the [Chief Executive’s] son to post-doctoral research at KI is an independent decision by KI having regard to his professional standards. He [the son] plays no role and does not hold any position at the [proposed] Ming Wai Lau Center for Regenerative Medicine.”

Leung had met with Anders Hamsten, president of KI, during an official visit to Europe last May.


Hong Kong’s Democratic Party has called on anti-corruption investigators to look into the donation, alleging that Leung used his public position to help his son. But the statement from Leung’s office said allegations of conflict of interest were “completely unfounded”.

The Swedish institute had already been working closely in medical research with a number of universities in Hong Kong, including the University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the statement said.

Hong Kong’s Commerce and Economic Development Bureau, the Innovation and Technology Commission, and the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation had been in touch with KI since 2010 to explore cooperation opportunities, it said.

The statement noted that during his overseas visits, the Chief Executive, or CE, promotes Hong Kong to other institutions as a “super connector” in linking mainland China and the rest of the world.

In his visit to Sweden last year, Leung made the same introduction to KI with a view to further promoting cooperation between Hong Kong, the China mainland and Sweden.

KI’s management agreed to this idea, the statement said, adding that “during a conversation with Mr Lau last year, the CE mentioned his duty visit to Sweden and the room for cooperation between KI and Hong Kong. Mr Lau expressed interest and subsequently liaised with KI of his own accord, without the involvement of the CE”.

It was acknowledged in the statement that Leung had mentioned to Lau that his son was going to undertake postdoctoral research at KI. “He [Leung] also declared the same during internal discussions on relevant issues within the government,” the statement said.

The Swedish-Hong Kong centre will focus on spinal injuries, a cure for Parkinson’s disease, myocardial infarction (heart attacks) and stem-cell liver transplant, according to the institute.

Although government officials denied the new centre’s work is related to Leung’s son’s field of study, KI’s Hamsten has said in previous speeches that it will develop heart therapy by using RNA technology.