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Q&A: Founder of China's first foundation talks future of philanthropy

DATE:2017.08.22 SOURCE:www.devex.com

Mei Hing Chak, the president of HeungKong Group and one of this year's winners of the Carnegie Foundation's medal of philanthropy. Photo by: HeungKong Group

NEW YORK — China is home to the second largest percentage of the world's billionaires, but philanthropy there remains a relatively new, emerging trend.

And yet, while China’s total charitable giving is a small fraction of the money generated in Europe or the United States, according to United Nations estimates, donations from top philanthropists in China have tripled from 2010 to 2016, reaching $4.6 billion, according to a recent study by Harvard University and Swiss bank UBS.

The Rise of Chinese Aid series

As China continues to grow as a global power, so too does its footprint on the development sector. Its rise comes at a moment when the status quo is shifting in the aid industry. Traditional standard bearers such as the U.S. and EU may still drive the majority of funds and set the agenda, but protectionist policies and changing domestic priorities are setting in motion significant changes.

In this six-week special series, Devex examines China's expanding role in aid and development across the globe. From tensions in Ghana to projects in Pakistan, from climate financing to donor partnerships, from individual philanthropy to state-financed investment, this series traces the past, present and future of Chinese aid and development.

Mei Hing Chak, the president of HeungKong Group, a privately run conglomerate with holdings in property management, financial investment and other areas, founded China’s first private philanthropic foundation in 2005. Since that time, HeungKong Charitable Foundation has reached more than 2 million people across China with its direct emergency disaster relief, education and health services.

This spring, Chak was awarded the Carnegie Foundation's medal of philanthropy, alongside others from the Skoll Foundationand the Azim Premji Foundation. HeungKong Charitable Foundation is not the largest philanthropic group in China, Chak is quick to tell Devex, but it is evolving with the changing charity landscape in the country. She talked with Devex recently on Skype, through a translator, about where she sees most opportunity for investment, and how the Chinese philanthropic landscape continues to take form. A condensed version of the conversation follows below, edited for length and clarity.

Can you talk a little about how your foundation was formed and why you saw the need for it in China?

I wanted to do charity work internally, within China, and to use charity work to spread this spirit to people, to everyone around us, as well as to our next generation. We wanted to focus the work within China, because we are based here in China, because we want to help people here, and the next generation, and the generation after that.

What areas of work need the most attention and support — poverty, education or something else, as you see it, and how does this influence the way you wanted to guide your work in China?

The [economic and development] situation in China is not equal, with regards to geographic location. There are some places in China that are richer than others. We focus mainly on the rural areas, because the poverty in rural areas is very serious. We have decided to concentrate on education, poverty alleviation, assistance and disaster relief.

How does your foundation's operations work, practically speaking?

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The first is that, on the education side, we focus on building libraries in key areas and we currently have 1,000 centers and libraries built throughout China. We have a standardized process of taking the library and, with this process, it helps us build this out. We also help with orphans and give some money to different organizations every year. Particularly, we help 80 orphanages by support theming to pay the school fees for the orphans there.

How would you describe the philanthropy scene in China? How have you seen it evolve?

We were the first foundation established in China in 2005. Before that, there were no private foundations. Currently there are already 3,980 non-public charitable foundations in China, which occupy 72 percent of all the foundations in the country. In 2006 there were only around $10 billion in donations. But in 2015, the donations reached $125.5 billion, meaning there is a 12 times growth in just 10 years. There are more and more people who are aware of helping others, and more and more people who are aware of the action of philanthropy. The charity law [a regulatory framework for nonprofits, which went into effect in early 2017] encourages people more to notice charitable issues and social issues and to give more.

So the transformation and growth in China’s philanthropy scene is not really about the issue of financing, but rather about awareness, as you see it?

There has been development in China’s economy. There has been economic growth and that is the first reason for this growth. There is the development of the economy, and there is also growth of business. So people are richer and they have more money. Also, because of this, they have, with the increase of money, a higher standard of living. They have also an entrepreneurial spirit. What they want is not just about money — it is more than that.

How will the foundation continue to grow, and , what direction would you like to see it take moving forward?

First of all, we will focus on education, and also on donation-assisted disaster relief. And we will continue to do this mainly by working in education and health care. For the health care part, my wish is to build a hospital in Guangdong province that, when it earns money, will put the money back to developing it, so we can continuously help others. The third thing is that we want to influence more young people, so we are not just about donations. Donating money is not the only thing we do. There are many foundations in China that donate more than us. Donations are not our main goal. We want to impact young people and influence them to get involved in charity work, and to help make the world a more harmonious place.

In this six-week special series, Devex examines China's expanding role in aid and development across the globe. From tensions in Ghana to projects in Pakistan, from climate financing to donor partnerships, from individual philanthropy to state-financed investment, this series traces the past, present and future of Chinese aid and development.

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Amy Lieberman is a reporter for Devex, based out of New York, where she covers global development around the city and out of the United Nations. She has previously worked as a freelancer, reporting on the environment, social justice issues, immigration and development. Her coverage has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, Slate and The Los Angeles Times, among other outlets. She received her M.A. in politics and government from Columbia Journalism School in 2014.


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