When Harvard received a donation to revamp and rename its School of Public Health in 2014, most press releases and public coverage focused on the more amicable face of the deal. Gerald L. Chan, the "science enthusiast," was the only individual donor named in the University's official press release. Our own newspaper detailed his “quiet leadership”; we noted his extensive links to the University. Sure, naming an entire school after a donor (or, in this case, his father) was unconventional and entirely unprecedented. But given Gerald Chan's commitment to our institution and the fact that the sum was the largest donation in our history, we all settled in to enjoy the newly well-funded, School of Public Health — few questions asked.
Yet the donation didn't come from Gerald Chan — not directly, and certainly not exclusively. The official donor was in fact the Morningside Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit co-founded by Gerald and his brother Ronnie C. Chan.
A brief gloss of the foundation itself reveals that the Chan gift was significantly more complicated than the optimistic University press release. For one, the funding for the gift is at least somewhat unclear. The Morningside Foundation's publicly available 990 tax returns from 2014 cite three sources of income. Among them are two companies named after East Asian teas, Bancha and Keemun Inc, both located at the same Iowa address (one that's linked to Morningside Private Investors, another Chan Venture). Both donated the exact same amount, $1.05 million. But I couldn’t find any other mention of either company in the public domain, certainly not the presence you might expect for corporations engaging in millionaire philanthropy. These attributes — bland names, lack of an internet presence, stated address that lacks any kind of relevant professional infrastructure — are all typical of shell companies (though in all fairness my review of the existing record, or lack thereof, doesn't allow me to discern whether Bancha and Keemun do covertly engage in some extremely profitable, million-dollar generating business). The third Morningside donor, and the main source of the Harvard gift, is the “Echo Enterprises International Holdings Group Limited.” Its Monaco address appears in the Offshore Leaks Database of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists as relevant in the Panama Papers, and linked to yet another Chan Venture, Stealth BioTherapeutics. The Morningside Foundation did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
So how the funds for Harvard’s largest gift got to the Morningside Foundation (and their precise origin) is uncertain, at best; the University's apparent reluctance to identify who is behind their most significant gift ever irresponsible, at least (University spokesperson Christopher M. Hennessy declined to comment on the matter). The entire thing seems slightly too on the nose; it doesn't raise eyebrows as much as it shoots them straight from one's forehead to the top of the sky.
And while Gerald Chan’s role in securing the donation has received significant attention, his brother Ronnie also seems to have played a crucial part in securing the gift. Outlets across both Europe and China dubbed him a “philanthropist” because of it; noting his role in co-founding Morningside as well as his status as chairman of the Hang Lung Group, the Chan family corporation that has pushed the brothers’ net worth into the ten-figure range. The line between the Hang Lung Group and the Morningside Foundation is at times blurry: the brothers serve on both ventures simultaneously — Gerald Chan is a non-executive director at Hang Lung and Ronnie Chan has gone as far as suggesting that his family’s stakes in the corporation are now part of Morningside Group’s assets. Portraying the donation as anything but a joint brotherly venture seems disingenuous, at best.
The question remains — who is Ronnie Chan? Jimmy Lai, the recently-arrested Hong Kong pro-democracy news mogul dubbed him a "pawn of the CCP" on Twitter, perhaps rightly so. As the Chans' Hang Lung Group has expanded from Hong Kong into the mainland, Ronnie Chan has found himself increasingly defensive of Beijing’s encroachment on Hong Kong. For one, he was an outspoken supporter of Leung Chun-ying, the former chief executive of Hong Kong whose tenure was marked by massive protests over attempts at giving Beijing the ability to pre-screen the city’s leadership. Ronnie Chan’s tenure as co-chair of the Asia Society’s Hong Kong Chapter proves particularly revealing of his ideology. During his time at the helm, the organization canceled the screening of a film centered on the 2014 Umbrella Movement citing “political concerns”, and barred Joshua Wong — a leader of the Umbrella Movement who has faced repeated state harassment for his work — from an event.
Wong, who was barred from attending a book launch commemorating the Hong Kong handover in 2017, reflected on the events via email. “Asia Society's Hong Kong chapter that Ronnie Chan co-chaired has long been slammed for censorship and political screening in the city,” he said, adding that “rather than an ordinary businessman, Chan also has close ties with Beijing authority.” Wong goes even further, asking whether Chan's decisions to build connections to U.S. universities while suppressing dissent at home are linked. “People begin to wonder if Chan plays a supplementary role in China's global propaganda campaign.” Representatives from the Asia Society's Hong Kong chapter and the Hang Lung Group did not respond to requests for comment in an attempt to reach Chan.
Such concerns are certainly warranted — that same year, Ronnie Chan received the Grand Bauhinia Medal, the highest award offered by Hong Kong’s government, cementing his ties to the mainland’s political establishment. These ties are noticeable elsewhere — Chan is also the governor of the China-United States Exchange Foundation, a registered foreign agent chaired by Tung Chee-hwa, vice-chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. Chan has even faced accusations that he triggered the censoring and eventual termination of Forbes Magazine contributor Anders Corr ’08, who wrote a piece critical of Chan only to watch it vanish from the Forbes website the following morning (Hong Kong-based Integrated Whale Media Investments bought a majority stake of Forbes back in 2014; Forbes Media did not respond to a request for comment for this article). The events highlight Ronnie Chan’s role within a broader push by Beijing authorities to exert control over speech not only at home but abroad — ranging from blacklisting and expelling foreign journalists, to pressuring the NBA and its affiliates to disavow tweets supportive of pro-democracy demonstrators. That a figure so linked to the polity behind these efforts (and allegedly responsible for some censorship himself) could be honored by the University and even have a school named after his late father, is simply unconscionable.
Orville H. Schell ’62, Arthur Ross Director of the Asia Society New York's Center on U.S.-China Relations, thinks that Ronnie Chan’s motivations are likely economic. Schell, who calls the Asia Society's Hong Kong chapter “quite insufferable and quite repellant,” was blunt about Ronnie Chan's ambitions. “I’ve known Ronnie Chan for many decades — and he has his interests, which is doing business with China.” That might seem cold, calculating, and eerily familiar — because it is. Ronnie Chan seemingly seeks to appease an increasingly authoritarian government for money, and Harvard renames an entire school after his family — all with just enough legal and financial opacity to make it impossible to ascertain the funds’ origins.
As always, the damage goes beyond the poetic irony of having a school of public health renamed on behalf of a cheerleader for a government responsible for significant humanitarian crises. Harvard is incredibly influential in shaping American perceptions of China. Schell mentions Harvard’s influence on his own career, adding that “every person who's a China specialist” is somehow associated with the University. Harvard’s decision to cozy up to oligarchs (even having student delegations visit think tanks that are legally registered as foreign agents) can have a tangible impact on future policy, particularly at a time when transoceanic exchange is, according to Schell, shaped by the fear of being too blunt and losing any chance of engagement.
“We all have to dance on the edge of that razor blade,” he says. The question is how far we'll go to preserve that access (and those donations) — and at what cost.
Guillermo S. Hava '23, a Crimson Editorial comp director, lives in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.