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Ronnie and Barbara Chan

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"If you donate to the mainland, it's not as simple as giving money. You need a lot of psychological resilience.”

Hong Kong property developer Ronnie Chan currently spends as much of his energy on philanthropy as he does on serving as chairman of the Hang Lung Group, which his father, Chan Tseng-Tsi, founded in 1960. Hang Lung is a leading Hong Kong company with an extensive real estate portfolio there. Since 1990, the company has also built, owned and managed commercial complexes in key cities in Mainland China. In addition, Chan cofounded the Morningside Group, which owns and manages a variety of companies —from manufacturing and public transport to high tech and biotech — in Asia, North America, and Europe. 

In 2014, Chan made headlines when he and his brother Gerald donated an unrestricted $350 million — through the Morningside Foundation, funded by the family — to Harvard University’s school of public health. The gift supports students and faculty members as they address four global health threats: old and new pandemics, harmful physical and social environments, poverty and humanitarian crises, and failing health systems. The school has been renamed the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, after Chan’s late father.

As the South China Morning Post reported, “Little is known about the charitable organization, Morningside Foundation, and the lively and candid Chan intentionally kept as much as he could to himself about it in an interview.” He said the foundation...has endowed several professorships at universities in China, Hong Kong and the U.S. Since 1996, it has also offered financial support annually to about 500 needy students at China's top universities.

A few days after Chan gave the Harvard gift, he and his wife, Barbara, dedicated $20 million to the University of Southern California’s occupational therapy program, where one of  the Chans’ sons earned a doctorate and recently joined the faculty.  An MBA graduate of USC, and a university trustee, Chan said in a statement, "I am grateful for the opportunities that USC afforded me and my sons, and our gift to the division is one of several ways we intend to continue supporting USC in the future." The division has been renamed after Chan's mother: the USC Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the gift will also establish a partnership with "a top Chinese university" to develop a graduate program in the same discipline.  

“Strong moral values” is the term Chan uses most when talking about what his family instilled in him. A devout Christian, he credits his parents for modeling altruism and philanthropy in their own lives. “My father was a frugal man, and he taught us at a young age to not consume money entirely for personal use.” Growing up in Hong Kong, Chan said, his family lived comfortably, but he was always “one of the poorer kids in school. “That’s the way we were brought up. My wife and I like to live a simple life.  I never dreamed that I would inherit my father’s money.” 

"In the final days of my late father’s life in 1985, our family came to an unwritten consensus to donate the family wealth to charities, except a certain amount to meet our mother's needs," Chan told the South China Morning Post. "I won't leave any money to my children," he said. Asked if his children would take part in the grant-making, he said, "People who don't know how to make money cannot be involved in giving it away.”

Chan also donates his time by tirelessly serving as a trustee to several organizations around the world. He currently co-chairs the board of the Asia Society and chairs the Society’s Hong Kong Center, where he actively participates in programs and leads events. He also sits on nearly 20 boards and advisory committees for nonprofits and educational institutions. 

Although his gifts to Harvard and USC have garnered the most attention, Chan has been investing in universities — including through endowed professorships — throughout China, Hong Kong and the U.S. His rationale for giving generously to U.S. universities is that, “there’s no doubt that the United States has the best tertiary education. It has the best academic rigor, as it’s both merit-based and competitive. And so, in the end, the best succeed. Of course there are exceptions, but overall it’s the fairest educational system. And that’s why the U.S. has produced the best research, which ultimately benefits everyone around the world.” Explaining why the Hong Kongers are the largest donors to U.S. academic institutions, Chan told the Wall Street Journal, that, first, “Hong Kong has been wealthy for a few decades, and the people are very generous.” He also said that many people of his generation, as well as that of his children’s, were educated in the U. S. and want to support something to which they are personally connected while also making the biggest impact. 

Chan has told BBC News that, given the relative youth of the modern Chinese economy, significant numbers of Chinese companies and business people were already committed to philanthropy. "This is unprecedented in the world, I think," he said. In judging the state of philanthropy in China, he said that the willingness of the country's new rich to donate should be balanced against the difficulty of doing charity work there. The Chan family has been supporting nonprofit organizations in Mainland China for almost 20 years.

As founding chairman of the China Heritage Fund, Chan has received international acclaim for the restoration of the Palace of Established Happiness and the Hall of Rectitude, inside the Forbidden City in Beijing. He told BBC that the fund had received global acclaim for its work, but admitted that after the fund left, there were certain "complications." The experience was a disappointment to him, but has not kept him from other charity work in China. "If you donate to the mainland, it's not as simple as giving money,” he explains. “You need a lot of psychological resilience.”

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