In a new China largely preoccupied with getting and spending after decades and perhaps centuries of poverty, Yu Panglin, an 87-year-old real estate developer and hotelier, stands out as a welcome anomaly.
Yu, according to a publication called th Hurun Report, is the most generous philanthropist in China, with 2007 donations totaling US$420 million, more than double the US$158 million given by Zhu Mengyi, a real estate developer, in second place. Yu has given HK$20-30 billion to charity, including schools, universities, hospitals, disaster relief and a program that has provided free cataract operations to 138,000 poor people.
He is wary of giving money to China's government to be handed on, and if he were in charge, would scrap the country's budding manned space program and the upcoming Shanghai Exhibition, meant to be the country's latest showcase for the world.
"In China, most charitable money is given to the government and much is lost before it reaches those for whom it is intended. I want to be an example and inspire other business people to donate," said Yu in an interview in the penthouse of his five-star Panlin Hotel in Shenzhen, his principal residence. "In the past five years, private donations by mainland businessmen have increased more than ten-fold."
A Hollywood scriptwriter couldn't have written Yu's biography, from poverty to riches on the streets of Shanghai to disgrace at the hands of the Cultural Revolution to being wiped out in the stock market to ultimate restoration of his wealth. He was born in 1922, the son of a businessman, in a poor village in Hunan, the province of Chairman Mao. To escape poverty, he went in 1945 to Shanghai, where he pulled rickshaws and sold goods on a street stall.
In 1953, he was arrested for being ‘a runaway landlord' and sentenced to three years of reform through labor in Anhui. He won an appeal against the sentence, saying that he was not a landlord. On his release, he returned to Shanghai and showed a police officer a letter from a friend in Hong Kong. "I have no job and no home. Please let me go to Hong Kong." The officer took pity on him and approved the application. "I had no party affiliation and nothing against me."
In 1957, he went to Hong Kong. With no money and connections and speaking neither Cantonese nor English, he earned HK$80-100 a month sweeping the streets, working on building sites and odd jobs. He didn't drink, smoke, gamble or visit prostitutes and squirreled his money.
A Shanghainese in a real estate firm gave him a job as manager and he began to learn the trade. Then he went into business on his own, buying and selling homes, and grew his fortune.
In 1973, he mortgaged everything and gambled it on the stock market. "I bought everything, including junk stocks, but the market turned against me and I lost everything." The loss made him stop buying stocks -- and ban his staff from doing so -- for the next 36 years. That is until March this year, when he purchased HSBC, Sun Hung Kai and Cheung Kong shares. "The chance is too good to miss."
He built his business again, investing in property in Taiwan and then Hong Kong. In 1973, he paid HK$850,000 for the luxury home in Kowloon Tong where Bruce Lee lived and died. No-one wanted it because they feared a curse by the spirit of the Kung Fu king who had died before his time. Yu spent HK$50,000 on repairs and rented it to a foreigner, who knew nothing of its history. Last year he donated it to the Hong Kong government, to turn into a museum for Bruce Lee.
His first venture into charity came in 1982 when he returned to his native place and donated 10 ambulances. "I am not religious but remembered the hospital in the labor camp. It had no proper doctor but peasants came because they had no hospital at all. Without transport, some came too late and died along the way."
Of the ambulances, only one remained in the village and the other nine were taken to the provincial capital, Changsha, where officials took them for their personal use.
"I learnt the lesson that you do not give anything to the government. You manage everything yourself and give to people directly. It is harder than doing business. It is easy to do bad things but hard to do good things.
"This means funding a school one storey at a time: when you see it completed, then you give the money for the next storey. Before, 50-60 per cent of what I gave disappeared. Now the proportion is much lower."
His charity includes schools, hospitals, scholarships and disaster relief in Hunan and other provinces.
His biggest project is the "Movement of Light", five mobile clinics that provide free cataract operations to poor residents of 18 provinces, including Tibet, Qinghai, Inner Mongolia and Gansu. Yu pays the entire cost, including the services of qualified eye surgeons from a Beijing hospital. They receive from him a second salary equal to that they are given by the hospital, as well as travel, living expenses and a holiday.
"I had this operation myself 10 years ago: I could not sign my own name. In the mainland, it costs 4,000-10,000 yuan, beyond the reach of many people." He regularly travels to see the clinics in action, to ensure that his money is being well spent.
He has written a will that leaves nothing to his children and grandchildren. His assets will be administered by HSBC Private Bank. His principal asset is the hotel and office block in central Shenzhen, which is worth HK$2 billion and earns an annual profit of HK$30 million: all of this goes to charity.
He works a full day, with a one-hour walk in the morning and a two-hour nap after lunch. He sleeps six hours a night. "I devote 40 percent of my time to my businesses and 60 percent to charity, especially Movement of Light.
"The government is rich now. It should do more and encourage others to do charity. Why does it spend so much on the Shanghai World Expo and the manned space program? It would have been better to spend that money on the poor."