HONG KONG — Harvard University received the largest financial gift in its history earlier this month when the Morningside Foundation, founded by brothers and Hong Kong developers Ronnie and Gerald Chan, donated $350 million to its School of Public Health.
"It could be asking for trouble to do good deeds in mainland China," 65-year-old Ronnie Chan said a week after the donation announcement.
He recalled his bitterly disappointing experience of contributing to a renovation project of Beijing's Imperial Palace. It ended in a scandal. "What matters in doing philanthropy is not the money but the heart and efforts put in."
Established in 1913, Harvard's 100-year-old public health school will be renamed the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health to honor the late T.H. Chan, father of the billionaire brothers.
"Our father was a staunch supporter of education," Ronnie says. "He handed down his will of promoting education and medical research to alleviate human illness and suffering. It's most appropriate that our father's name is associated with a top university public health school endeavoring to improve people's wellbeing."
Gerald Chan is an alumnus of the Harvard public health school, where he earned master's and doctorate degrees in 1975 and 1979. "This gift is our homage to our father's legacy," he says.
From his Hong Kong office, Ronnie Chan says that it's tradition in his family not to hand down inheritances. He also says that, in philanthropy, it's important to be focused on particular causes. "Because if your door is too wide open, everybody will be at your doorstep. One has limited energy and money."
The Morningside Foundation had a bad philanthropy experience between 2000 and 2005 during the renovation of Jianfu Palace, part of the Forbidden City, the National Palace Museum. In 2011, the Jianfu Palace was exposed by Chinese media as having become a private club reserved only for the world's privileged, including Henry Kissinger, which aroused huge public outrage.
"When I went to take a look myself, I was appalled by the horrendous changes made to this mid-18th century monument," Ronnie Chan says. "It was turned into something like a five-star hotel. I couldn't possibly agree with this. One can find five-star hotels everywhere in the world. But what on earth does the Palace Museum want one for?"
Though many have speculated that this bad experience is probably what pushed the billionaire brothers to give a huge sum of money to Harvard instead of to Chinese universities, Ronnie Chan pointed out that their foundation does "also donate to five Chinese universities — Peking University, Tsinghua University, Fudan University, Shanghai Jiaotong University and Tongji University — although it's less well known."
"Doing charity in mainland China isn't a simple matter like it is in the West, just involving giving out money," he says. "Rather, it can bring a lot of headaches and even provoke anger like once happened to my brother Gerald. I had to comfort him saying, "Never mind, pretend as if you had thrown away that money.""
Asked for specifics, Ronnie Chan is reserved, saying only that China's academic corruption and atmosphere still need to be improved. "Without academic vigor, it's impossible for Chinese universities to conduct world-class research," he says. "This is part of the reason why we'd rather give money to Harvard University. Besides, public health involves the whole of humanity and thus has an extraordinary significance."