The $350 Million Question: What Drove Harvard Gift From Hong Kong Billionaires?

Ronnie Chan speaks at the Horasis Global China Business Meeting
Ronnie Chan speaks at the Horasis Global China Business Meeting
Wang Duan and Cui Yueheng

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."

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Feed The Future

COP26 Should Mark A Turning Point In Solving The Climate Crisis

Slow Food calls for an action plan to significantly reduce and improve the production and consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs by 2050.

A new dawn?

If, as the saying goes, we are what we eat, the same also goes for the animals that end up on our plate. How we feed our own food can have knock-on effects, not just for our own health but also for the planet. We are now aware of the meat and dairy industry's significant carbon footprint, responsible for more than a third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Large-scale cattle productions that favor pure profit over more sustainable practices also add to environmental woes through biodiversity loss, deforestation and pesticide use — with some of the world's richest countries contributing disproportionately: The five biggest meat and milk producers emit the same amount of greenhouse gases as the oil giant Exxon.

The good news is that we could meet — if we would — some of these challenges with an array of innovative solutions, as the fields of farming, breeding and nutrition look at ways to shift from centralized intensive agro industry toward a more localized, smaller-scale and more organic approach to production.

Cows fed corn and grain-based diets may grow larger and are ready to be processed at a younger age — but this requires significant energy, as well as land and water resources; in contrast, grass and hay-fed cows support a regenerative farming model in which grazing can contribute to restoring the health of soil through increased microbial diversity. Compared to highly processed GM crops, natural-grass diets with minimal cereals also lead to more nutrient-rich livestock, producing better quality meat, milk and cheese. Farmers have started focusing on breeding native animal species that are best adapted to local environmental contexts.

This new approach to agricultural practices is closely linked to the concept of agroecology, where farming works in tandem with the environment instead of exploiting it. If mowed a few times a year, for instance, natural meadows produce hay that is rich in grasses, legumes and flowers of the sunflower family, like daisies, dandelions, thistles and cornflowers. These biomes become reservoirs of biodiversity for our countryside, hosting countless species of vegetables, insects and birds, many of which are at risk of extinction. Until recently, these were common habitats in meadows that were not plugged or tilled and only required light fertilization. Today, however, they are becoming increasingly threatened: in the plains, where the terrain is used for monocultures like corn; or in hills and mountains, where fields are facing gradual abandonment.

It is worth noting that extensive agriculture, which requires smaller amounts of capital and labor in relation to the size of farmed land, can actually help curb climate change effects through carbon dioxide absorption. Researchers at the University of California, Davis determined that in their state, grasslands and rangelands have actually acted as more resilient carbon sinks than forests in recent years. Through a system of carbon uptake, these lands provide a form of natural compensation, going as far as canceling the farms' impact on the planet, rendering them carbon "creditors."

In the meantime, grasslands and pastures allow animals to live in accordance with their natural behavioral needs, spending most of the year outside being raised by bonafide farmers who care about animal welfare. A recent study by Nature found that allowing cows to graze out of doors has both psychological and physical health benefits, as they seem to enjoy the open space and ability to lie on the soft ground.

Some might worry about the economic losses that come with this slower and smaller business model, but there are also opportunities for creativity in diversifying activities, like agro-tourism and direct sales that can actually increase a farm's profit margin. This form of sustainable production goes hand-in-hand with the Slow Meat campaign, which encourages people to reduce their meat consumption while buying better quality, sustainable meat.

Others may assume that the only environmentally-conscious diet is entirely plant-based. That is indeed a valuable and viable option, but there are also thoughtful ways to consume meat in moderation — and more sustainably. It also should be noted that many fruits and vegetables have surprisingly large carbon footprints: The industrial-scale cultivation of avocados, for example, requires massive amounts of water and causes great hardship to farming communities in Latin America.

But forging a broad shift toward more "biodiversity-friendly" pastoralism requires action by both those producing and eating meat, and those with the legislative power to enact industry-wide change. It is urgent that policies be put into place to support a return to long-established agricultural practices that can sustainably feed future generations. Although no country in the world today has a defined strategy to decrease consumption while transforming production, governments are bound to play a key role in the green transition, present and future.

In Europe, Slow Food recommends that the Fit for 55 package include reducing emissions from agriculture activities by 65% (based on 2005 levels) by 2050. Agriculture-related land use emissions should also reach net-zero by 2040 and become a sink of -150 Mt CO2eq by 2050. But these targets can only be met if the EU farming sector adopts agroecological practices at a regional scale, and if consumers shift to more sustainable diets. If we are indeed what we eat, we should also care deeply about how the choices we make impact the planet that feeds us.

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