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The billionaire who quit Tencent to pledge his money to teachers

Devon Pendleton & Venus Feng | Bloomberg/ 16 Sep 18 | 12:18 AM

Charles Chen Yidan, one of five co-founders of Tencent Holdings

For a nation that’s minting billionaires at a blistering pace, China’s philanthropy scene is surprisingly puny, thanks in part to the Communist Party’s longstanding suspicion of non-governmental organisations.

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That’s starting to change as a handful of Chinese billionaires including Jack Ma go public with plans for ambitious charitable endeavours. Among them is Charles Chen Yidan, one of five co-founders of the country’s biggest internet media company, Tencent Holdings Ltd. Yidan was Tencent’s chief administrative officer and helped set up its in-house charity. In 2013 he retired to dedicate more time to personal giving, focusing largely on education.


In Hong Kong on Saturday he announced this year’s recipients of the Yidan Prize, a HK$60 million ($7.6 million) annual award given to people who are transforming education in a sustainable way. The prizes reward one teacher and one researcher and are the centrepiece of Yidan’s HK$2.5 billion charitable foundation.


This year’s winners were Larry Hedges, a professor at Northwestern University who studies the use of statistics in education policy, and Anant Agarwal, founder of online learning platform edX.


Yidan spoke earlier to Bloomberg News about philanthropy and the importance of schoolmates.


Why education?


My father was from a rural area; he was the first person in his family to go to university. My grandmother insisted. Education transformed my father’s life, which in turn, transformed me. China has a national university exam. If you don’t do well on it, you can’t get into a good one. There was this intangible pressure from society, family and teachers that this exam was vital. Now the opportunity to attend university is much more accessible but back then it seemed the only way to a good life. If you graduated from a good school, the state would assign you a job. They stopped this guaranteed-job policy in 1993, the year I graduated. But before then, if you were from a rural area, college was the only way to change transform your life.


Were you a good student?


I put a lot of pressure on myself. My favourite subjects were math and Chinese. English was my weakest subject. My scores were OK, but it wasn’t my favourite. School is about more than teachers though. It’s also about your pals, the friendships. I established Tencent with my school friends, they were my classmates in secondary school and university. University is also where I met wife.


What prompted you to do philanthropy full time?


It wasn’t an easy decision. I admit, the company’s growth far exceeded the founders’ expectations. In the beginning we just wanted to get a presence on the internet and do our operations well. We felt our way through. It was only my second job. But it was a period where the internet was about to boom in China. 


By 2013 the company was growing extremely quickly and I was wondering, how do I jump off this fast-moving vehicle?


I knew I had a set number of years before retirement when my energy levels were still good and I could dedicate time to what was important to me — my family, philanthropy and education. My wife urged me to listen to my heart. I really listened to her. She worked to support our family in the early years and she encouraged me to join Tencent in the first place.


With so many deserving causes out there, how did pick a focus?


I feel that there are two things that are important when it comes to giving. One is mechanism and the other is time. What makes for a good education? Think about it, the internet is a platform, social media is a platform. I don’t have a personal view as to what kind of education is best but I believe in the mechanisms. The goal with the prize is to attract people and attention. The reward is more than a prize, it’s a platform and it offers so many opportunities for collaboration.


Will more Chinese follow your example with philanthropy?


Yes, I’ll think we’ll see more engagement. Traditional Chinese culture was very supportive of philanthropy. 


A businessman by the name of Tan Kah Kee was a very influential donor in his day. This isn’t simply about making donations. It’s about using your resources and experience to make a contribution.


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