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Zhang Xin and Pan Shiyi

Photo for Zhang Xin and Pan Shiyi

“Chinese philanthropy is gaining momentum and an emerging group of Chinese entrepreneurs is hoping to make a positive and lasting impact on China and the world.”

In 2014, Ms. Zhang Xin described in the New York Times how China was on a “cusp of change” and that a new generation of Chinese wealthy are giving back in innovative ways to better China’s society. Country and global trends were reflected in the individual stories, such as hers, of determined and often poor Chinese who had made their way to the pinnacles of success. Ms. Zhang and her husband, Mr. Pan Shiyi, both came from humble beginnings and benefited from scholarships to pursue higher education. Ms. Zhang attended Sussex University and Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. Both founded and are now the leaders of SOHO China, the country’s largest prime real estate developer. Ms. Zhang serves as the CEO of the company. In 2007, SOHO went public in Hong Kong, financing USD 1.9 billion (RMB 115.9 billion), the largest initial public offering in the history of commercial real estate companies in Asia. While succeeding in business, the couple is also actively involved in philanthropy and direct the SOHO China Foundation.

The SOHO China Foundation, founded in 2005, is committed primarily to education for underprivileged communities. Ms. Zhang recalled how her education was a turning point for her. “My education opened my eyes to [the] world, provided me with the academic grooming necessary to pursue an international career, and gave me the courage to return to China, build an enterprise and innovate.” Mr. Pan similarly recognized that education has an enormous impact on a nation and its people and noted that the fundamental progress of a nation is not how tall its buildings are but how much knowledge its people learn. Consequently, in 2014, the foundation committed USD 100 million (RMB 610 million) in financial aid scholarships for Chinese undergraduate students to attend leading international universities. Initial commitments have gone to Harvard University and Yale University. Prior to these gifts, the couple had a long-standing record of improving teacher training in rural Western China. It is estimated that 80,000 primary school students have benefited. From these experiences, Ms. Zhang recognized that rural students in particular are severely disadvantaged from pursuing a world-class education. The gifts by SOHO China Foundation are intended in part to enable China’s best and brightest, whatever their economic circumstances, to bridge China to the world and to meet today’s challenges and opportunities of globalization. In an interview, Ms. Zhang emphasized and explained the purpose of the foundation’s donation: first, to allow disadvantaged students in China to “receive the best education regardless of their financial conditions” and, second, to act as a role model to other businesses and individuals and show them “where to give” so that they can also join the cause to support access to world’s best universities. Mr. Pan also explained that education is the key to social changes and their one and only guiding principle for giving is “to benefit Chinese students.”

Ms. Zhang and Mr. Pan’s philanthropic work is expected to bear fruit well into the future, but already a number of funded projects have yielded results. For example, Teach for China is a nonprofit education project founded in 2008 by the SOHO China Foundation. Its aim is to reduce educational inequality in China. By recruiting university graduates from China and the United States, Teach for China sends excellent young people to Yunnan and Guangdong Provinces, where educational needs are among the greatest. They serve as volunteer teachers for two years. At the start of the project’s establishment in 2009, the number of volunteers and students was only 20 and 300, respectively. Within five years, the number increased to 500 volunteer teachers and 70,000 students. In 2013, the SOHO China Foundation planned to invest USD 4.42 million (RMB 27 million) to support Teach for China through 2016.

Other projects that the SOHO China Foundation has supported include the Sunshine Students project and the Children’s Virtual Education project. The Sunshine Students project (2009 to 2010) impacted 1,000 rural female college students in poverty from Tianshui Normal College, and 1,200 college students in poverty from 12 universities and colleges in Beijing. The project also supported college students to be volunteer teachers in rural areas and bought train tickets for 1,000 poor college students studying in Beijing to go back to their hometowns for the spring festival. The Children’s Virtue Education project (2008 to 2012) trained 1,747 teachers and 252 headmasters from Tianshui, Gansu Province, in Beijing. Teachers return to Tianshui to establish Children’s Virtue courses. Over 61,000 kindergarten and lower grade children were studying Children’s Virtue materials weekly.

On another level, Ms. Zhang hopes that the philanthropic work she and her Chinese counterparts are pursuing will be large scale and high impact. In her New York Times article, she concluded that the tradition of Chinese philanthropy is gaining momentum and that an emerging group of Chinese entrepreneurs is hoping to make “a positive and lasting impact on China and the world.” Of all things, Ms. Zhang is most proud of her philanthropic work and hopes to continue it for many years to come.

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