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Chinese billionaire seeks ideas from Canadian universities for education prize

Charles Chen Yidan has created the most lucrative annual prize for educational development in the world and donated $320-million (U.S.) for an endowment.

SCMP/David Wong

At first glance, Charles Chen Yidan looks like many Chinese entrepreneurs.

He helped build a successful Internet platform called Tencent Inc., which runs China's largest instant messenger, WeChat, and he became a billionaire by the age of 40. But Mr. Yidan, now 45, is also doing something still relatively uncommon among Chinese business people: He is giving away much of his wealth.

He has created the most lucrative annual prize for educational development in the world and donated $320-million (U.S.) for an endowment.

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Each year, an independent board of the Yidan Prize Foundation will award two prizes for educational research and development. Each recipient will receive about $5-million, made up of $2-million in cash and an investment in the winner's project. The first prizes will be given next September.

Mr. Yidan and officials from the foundation have met with universities and organizations around the world, including the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University, to encourage nominations. Mr. Yidan said his hope is to fund the best ideas from anywhere on how to improve education.

"We definitely are seeking among [Canadian universities] the best cases because Canada is a big country in terms of education. You have huge experience," Mr. Yidan said through an interpreter during a recent stop in London, where he met with officials from University College London, Oxford and Cambridge. "Canada in terms of education is quite successful, their educational model is well known and attracts lots of Chinese students and also students from Asian countries. Secondly, Canada is a multicultural country and has shown particular characteristics in education, in English and French."

Mr. Yidan is among a growing number of Chinese business people who have embraced philanthropy, something he acknowledged is still rare in China. He is already deeply involved in educational causes in China, supporting a non-profit private university, Wuhan University, on a variety of educational reforms and working with a public school in southern China to develop new ways of teaching children.

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"For me, education is extremely important," he said. "It propels humankind, but also it will be a tool to resolve the problems society is facing. … Despite the fact that different countries have different systems, if you talk to educators, they are talking about some common issues."

As for philanthropy, Mr. Yidan said China does not have the same tradition for corporate donations or large individual financial gifts as North America or Europe, but helping others is part of its culture. "No matter if you look at Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, they are all advocating be kind to people, do good things for others. We have a saying that if you do good things to others you are accumulating virtue for yourself, which is going to be rewarded eventually. So this doesn't only mean monetary contributions, but also your behaviour, your attitudes toward others."

He added that business people are getting more involved in philanthropy. "During the past three decades, because of the opening up and reforms, the economic growth, I think it came back and the whole level of the society is elevated, the conscience and the behaviour of the entrepreneur army is coming back."

His interest in education stems partly from his grandmother, who, despite being illiterate, valued learning and pushed her grandchildren out the door every day to get to school near Shenzhen, where Mr. Yidan grew up. He went to a local university and got a civil-service job at the Shenzhen Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Bureau.

He lasted only a few years before a group of friends from university invited him to join their startup venture, Tencent. WeChat now has more than 840 million users, who not only chat, but also use the service for banking, shopping and donating to charities. It has become so large and dominant that it has caught the attention of Chinese officials, who experts say have developed a sophisticated management system to censor messages.

Mr. Yidan said he believes countries can learn from each other when it comes to education. He noted that while the Chinese system emphasizes literacy and math, "a coin has two sides."

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"If you say Chinese kids are better in math, they might be weaker in interpersonal communications," he said, adding that the key "is mutual communication and an exchange of ideas, learning from each other."

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About the Author
European Correspondent

Paul Waldie has been an award-winning journalist with The Globe and Mail for more than 10 years. He has won three National Newspaper Awards for business coverage and been nominated for a Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. He has also won a Sports Media Canada award for sports writing and authored a best-selling biography of the McCain family. More

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