21 February 2020
Charles Chen says education is the ultimate way to improve society. Photo: HKEJ
Charles Chen says education is the ultimate way to improve society. Photo: HKEJ

Chen Yidan gives HK$2.5 bln to fund education prize

Charles Chen Yidan (陳一丹), a philanthropist and one of the five co-founders of internet giant Tencent Holdings Ltd. (00700.HK), launched The Yidan Prize (一丹獎) on Sunday.

Funded by an independent trust of HK$2.5 billion (US$320 million), the prize aims to recognize and support innovators in the education system.

Chen told the Hong Kong Economic Journal he had spent three years setting up the prize.

“I was deeply influenced by my grandmother,” he told EJ Insight in an interview.

“Although she was illiterate, she was kind to people and always gave friendly support to others. Her kindness and friendliness was from her heart.

“She did not speak great words but had a strong belief that studying is very important.” 

His grandmother died at the age of 98 in 2012.

Chen said he would like to contribute to society through this prize, as he had benefited from China’s universal education policy.

The Yidan Prize is the world’s largest education award in monetary terms.

There will be two annual awards – The Yidan Prize for Education Research and The Yidan Prize for Education Development.

The winner of each prize will receive a gold medal, a cash prize of HK$15 million and a project fund of HK$15 million based on the principle of impact investment.

The first two prizes will be announced in September next year.

The Yidan Prize Foundation, which governs the HK$2.5 billion trust, commissioned the Economist Intelligence Unit to identify the trends in education in 2030, which aligns with the goals of “Education 2030”, the global education agenda of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, part of the 17 sustainable development goals that make up the UN’s “Agenda 2030”.

Chen, 45, worked for the Shenzhen Entry-exit Inspection and Quarantine Bureau after he graduated from Shenzhen University in 1993.

He was invited by Tencent chairman and co-founder Pony Ma Huateng (馬化騰) to jointly found the internet giant with former chief technology officer Tony Zhang Zhidong (張志東), former chief operating officer Jason Zeng Liqing (曾李青) and chief information officer Daniel Xu Chenyu (許晨曄).

All the founding shareholders except Zeng were classmates at Shenzhen Middle School and Shenzhen University.

Chen, Tencent’s former chief administration officer, said he was glad to have founded a business together with Ma and Zhang, who remain close friends with him.

“We knew one another’s personalities and never quarrelled about interests,” Chen said.

“Our stakes were fixed from the beginning, and we followed commercial rules.

“We all had one goal, which was to make our cake bigger.”

An unforgettable examination

Looking back, Chen said the college entrance examination was an unforgettable moment in his life.

He said he had become exhausted in the second year of high school, because of the pressure, and failed Chinese language in the official examination.

Chen said he failed in a writing test when he saw a picture of a person digging a well.

He chose not to write on the topic “persistence” or “thorough investigation” but used a different theme instead.

Chen decided to study applied chemistry at university, as he was not able to follow in his parents’ footsteps and study finance.

“But actually, I am happy that I entered the chemistry faculty, where I met my wife,” Chen said. “She has always supported me.”

He said the training in logical thinking later helped him when he was helping to found Tencent.

In 1996, Chen was granted a master’s degree in law by Nanjing University.

“When I studied law, I did not learn only about legal analysis but also human nature,” he said.

“It made me think a lot about society.”

At that time, he started to realize that education is the ultimate solution for social problems.

“After my personal career got on track, I started to try to push forward education,” Chen said.

“Combining my working experience and knowledge about Chinese culture from books, I have gained more understanding of education.”

In 2009, he invested in Wuhan College at the Zhongnan University of Economics and Law.

Last year, he donated 2 billion yuan (US$306.8 million) to turn the college into a private non-profit university and build a new campus for it.

In 2013, Chen resigned from Tencent and became a full-time philanthropist. He began to prepare the launch of The Yidan Prize.

Chen said The Yidan Prize defines education in a broad sense, which includes education by schools, families, societies and religions.

He hopes more people will care about education and jointly innovate new educational models through different theories and practices.

[Chinese version中文版]

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Chief reporter at EJ Insight