Chinese billionaires criticised for giving Harvard $18m

BEIJING (AFP) - A Chinese billionaire couple have faced a deluge of criticism for donating US$15 million (S$ 18.5 million) to one of the richest and most prestigious universities in the US, with Internet users saying it would be better spent on students in China.

Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin, the husband-and-wife duo behind real estate giant SOHO China, are giving US$100 million to fund disadvantaged Chinese students at top universities across the globe.

The first stage of the programme was last week's gift to the Ivy League institution, widely regarded as one of the world's best universities.

Mr Pan is not only one of China's wealthiest people but also one of the country's most-celebrated "Big V" bloggers, with nearly 17 million followers on the microblogging site Sina Weibo, at times drawing attention from the authorities.

China is the largest single source country for international students in the United States, providing more than a quarter of all foreign students, according to the Institute of International Education.

Many of those young people's studies are funded by their families, but Ms Zhang told the Wall Street Journal that the firm's "SOHO China Scholarships" would be aimed at encouraging less-well-off Chinese students to apply to study abroad.

Nonetheless some users of Sina Weibo sharply criticised Mr Pan and Ms Zhang, questioning the couple's motives and arguing that disadvantaged students within China are more deserving of help.

"They despise their own country and people," one Sina Weibo user wrote Thursday.

"It doesn't matter... the rise of China and Chinese higher education is historically inevitable," added the poster, who uses the name "Boycott Japanese goods forever".

Another user added: "Taking Chinese people's money and giving it to people who are able to study in America - what a great definition of 'poverty'!" Others defended the decision by the couple, who have also established a foundation to support education in rural areas of China.

"A lot of people are saying Pan Shiyi and his wife spent US$15 million to buy their son a ticket to Harvard. However, we shouldn't find fault with how they decide to spend their own money," wrote one.

Ms Zhang responded to the criticism on her own Weibo account, writing that without funding for poor students, good education would be reserved for the wealthy.

"Our scholarships will change this phenomenon," she wrote.

It is not the first time wealthy Chinese have faced nationalism-fuelled criticism of their philanthropic decisions.

Last year, China's richest man, Wang Jianlin, came under fire after his company Wanda Group spent US$28 million on a painting by the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, with some Internet users questioning the extravagant purchase as well as Mr Wang's patriotism.

"Why not purchase Chinese paintings? What happened to passing on our own heritage?" one microblog user asked at the time.

Added another: "You can buy back China's lost treasures first if you have so much money to burn."

For his part, Mr Pan has previously driven public opinion online on a variety of issues, and incurred the government's wrath by posting details of Beijing's dirty air levels, which at the time were not officially released.

At a meeting in mid-August, one of China's top officials responsible for Internet censorship, told Mr Pan and other well-known bloggers to be "more positive and constructive" in their online comments, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.

Mr Pan was later shown in an interview with state broadcaster CCTV, where he appeared contrite and warned of the dangers of "casual" online posts.