Chinese 'Power Couple' Defends Harvard Donation

UPDATED: Oct. 1, 2014, at 11:40 p.m.

Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin, the couple who co-founded China’s largest commercial real estate company and donated $15 million to the University last July, shared their views on education and philanthropy with hundreds of students on Wednesday in a filled Science Center B.

The pair, which Forbes dubbed one of the “World’s Most Powerful Couples,” currently heads the real estate developer SOHO China Ltd. as well as the philanthropic organization SOHO China Foundation.

Shiyi Cheery About Education
Philanthropist Pan Shiyi speaks about his scholarship donation and the importance of education in the Science Center on Wednesday. Shiyi and his wife Zhang Xin started the SOHO Scholarship foundation, aimed at bringing Chinese students to elite universities.

Last July, the foundation launched the $100 million “SOHO China Scholarship” to provide financial aid for Chinese students to study at the world’s top universities, starting with a $15 million gift to Harvard.

Co-hosted by Harvard China Fund and several Chinese students’ groups on campus, Wednesday's event was conducted mostly in Chinese because many audience members were Chinese nationals.

William C. Kirby, a professor of Chinese studies, introduced the couple by recounting their respective rags-to-riches stories.

Zhang worked as a factory girl before studying in the United Kingdom on financial aid. Similarly, the opportunity to go to college was life-changing for Pan, who was born in rural China.

“To both of them, education was key to later success. They know the transformative power of learning,” Kirby said, after calling their donation “a gift of transformational proportions.”

“I’ve always thought that one’s relationship with society is in an equilibrium. The more you give, the more you will gain,” Pan said in Chinese.

The couple, who has a combined 25 million fans on the Chinese Twitter-like social media platform Sina Weibo, faced severe criticism in China after announcing their donation to Harvard.

“People have been saying that we are taking money from the Chinese people before giving it away to Americans. Many have hurled us doubts and even invectives,” Pan said. “But we can’t live for these doubts. As long as we think it’s the right thing, we will keep doing it.”

Currently, eight Chinese students at Harvard College have benefitted from the SOHO China Scholarship.

“Eight scholars is a drop in the ocean,” Zhang said. “We can’t solve all the problems in China’s education system, but this serves as an example.”

Zhang said that even though China produced close to 10 million high school graduates last year, less than 500 applied to Harvard College.

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