A Chinese billionaire is setting the pace for China’s emerging philanthropy scene. The country is producing billionaires at a very fast pace, but charitable giving is still very minimal, thanks mostly to the Communist Party’s suspicion of non-governmental organizations.
But Charles Chen Yidan just went public with plans for a massive charitable effort. He is one of five co-founders of the country’s biggest internet media company, Tencent Holdings Ltd. Yidan was the company’s chief administrative officer and helped set up its in-house charity. In 2013 he retired to dedicate more time to personal giving that focuses largely on education.
In Hong Kong on Saturday he announced this year’s recipients of the Yidan Prize, a HK$60 million ($7.6 million) annual award given to people who are transforming education in a sustainable way. The prizes reward one teacher and one researcher and are the centerpiece of Yidan’s HK$2.5 billion charitable foundation.
Larry Hedges, a professor at Northwestern University, is one of this year’s winners. He is joined by Anant Agarwal, the founder of the online learning platform edX.
When asked by Bloomberg News: “Why education?,” Yidan said,
“My father was from a rural area; he was the first person in his family to go to university. My grandmother insisted. Education transformed my father’s life, which in turn, transformed me. China has a national university exam. If you don’t do well on it, you can’t get into a good one. There was this intangible pressure from society, family and teachers that this exam was vital. Now the opportunity to attend university is much more accessible but back then it seemed the only way to a good life. If you graduated from a good school, the state would assign you a job. They stopped this guaranteed-job policy in 1993, the year I graduated. But before then, if you were from a rural area, college was the only way to change transform your life.”
Yidan was also asked what prompted him to do philanthropy full time.
“It wasn’t an easy decision. I admit, the company’s growth far exceeded the founders’ expectations. In the beginning we just wanted to get a presence on the internet and do our operations well. We felt our way through. It was only my second job. But it was a period where the internet was about to boom in China. By 2013 the company was growing extremely quickly and I was wondering, how do I jump off this fast-moving vehicle? I knew I had a set number of years before retirement when my energy levels were still good and I could dedicate time to what was important to me — my family, philanthropy and education. My wife urged me to listen to my heart. I really listened to her. She worked to support our family in the early years and she encouraged me to join Tencent in the first place.”
The generous billionaire believes that we will see more engagement in Philanthropy by the Chinese. Traditional Chinese culture was very supportive of philanthropy.