Caltech gift tops year of generous Chinese giving to HE

A US$ 115 million donation to California Institute of Technology or Caltech in the United States from Chinese billionaire Chen Tianqiao and his wife Chrissy Luo tops a generous year for donations to international education and research institutions from Chinese philanthropists.

The latest gift announced on 8 December will fund creation of an Institute for Neuroscience at Caltech which will be named after the donors and designed to foster interdisciplinary faculty collaboration between the university's academic departments, including neuroscience, engineering, computer science and social science.

Chen, chairman of China’s Shanda Group, was once described as China’s richest man as his online gaming company transformed into a global private investment company. He said the couple’s involvement in the internet and entertainment industries allowed them to “witness the ability for technology advancements to influence human perception, as well as to observe the resultant meaningful effects on human behaviour”.

He said: "We believe uncovering how the brain perceives, interprets and interacts with the world is pivotal in so many aspects. It can shape groundbreaking industries such as artificial intelligence, robotics and virtual reality. It also plays a critical role in addressing social issues such as ageing and behavioural deficiencies.”

The Caltech donation is just the start. Chen and Luo, who are now based in Singapore, say they will be donating US$1 billion on brain discovery, research and development.

2016 donations

Other donations from Chinese philanthropists this year include a US$30 million gift to Yale Law School from the Tsai family in honour of the late Paul Tsai, a Yale Law School alumnus from Taiwan, to benefit the Law School’s China Center which also contributes to research on US-China relations.

In May, Chen Yidan, co-founder of China’s Tencent media and investment company, announced a US$7.6 million annual award recognising outstanding research in education.

Smaller donations this year include US$1 million announced in May from Hong Kong’s Victor and William Fung Foundation to Massachusetts Institute of Technology or MIT “to support global education opportunities”, adding to a similar sum from the foundation for the same purpose in 2011.

The donation enabled some 300 so-called 'Fung Scholars' to study abroad, take up overseas internships, mainly in Hong Kong and China, and funded research.

Another Hong Kong donor Li Ka Shing – well known for higher education philanthropy over many years – donated NZ$5 million (US$3.5 million) to the University of Auckland, New Zealand, this year to support entrepreneurship and set up an Innovation Fund named after Li to fund entrepreneurship teaching and research, as well as the commercialisation of student-led companies.

Not everyone happy

However, not everyone is pleased with the generosity of Chinese donors, with official Chinese media reporting last week that the donation to Caltech had “set off hot discussions among Chinese neuroscientists and netizens”.

“Many Chinese scholars lauded that the country’s entrepreneurs now show interest in fundamental scientific research, but they felt more regret that the donation did not come to underfunded Chinese institutes of brain research, which are developing so fast and can catch up with the US in a few years,” China’s official Global Times said last week, adding, “An often asked question comes up again: why do Chinese philanthropists always prefer to donate to foreign institutions rather than Chinese ones?”

An interview with Chen published in Beijing News in March cited a donation to an unnamed Chinese university and a children’s hospital that “failed” because the institutions refused to provide him with a report on the planned use of the money.

Experts note that accountability and transparency standards are often lax in China’s universities and research institutes, and many donors fear their money will not go to the causes they are intended for.

Charitable giving surged after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake but then fell back after huge amounts were revealed to have been siphoned off by corrupt officials.

Local donations

But mainland Chinese billionaires have also been donating to local universities as well. In September, Xiong Xinxiang, CEO of China’s Born Group, a huge media company, donated CNY1.03 billion (US$148 million) to his alma mater, the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China in Chengdu, Sichuan province, to set up a “brain education development fund”. It was reportedly the largest ever single donation to a Chinese university by an alumnus.

Last year, Jack Ma, founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba, donated CNY100 million (US$14 million) to his alma mater, Hangzhou Normal University.

China Charity Alliance or CCA, which was set up by the government in 2013 to help reduce inequality, said in a report released in November that donations to education in China exceed donations in other areas including health.

The CCA report said that in 2015 around 12 universities in China received single donations of more than CNY50 million (US$7 million) each from alumni.

A separate report published earlier this year by the China Philanthropy Research Institute at Beijing Normal University found nearly half the CNY12.8 billion (about US$2 billion) in philanthropic donations made in 2015 went to higher education institutions. Of all the donations to higher education, more than 10% came from alumni, it found.

China wants to encourage more philanthropic giving to education by its billionaires, with a new charities law passed by the National People’s Congress in March this year, and which came into force in September, providing some incentives, although exact details are hard to come by. It aims to ease fundraising restrictions and the operations of charity groups, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

Currently companies seeking tax deductions for donations face huge bureaucratic hurdles which discourages giving, according to a report, Unleashing the Potential of Philanthropy in China, released in May by the United Nations Development Programme.