How an Investor Managing America’s Top College Endowments Funded an AI Research Institute Beneficial to China

September 23, 2019 Updated: October 15, 2019

Chinese investor Zhang Lei and his Asia-based investment firm has helped some of the United States’ most elite colleges, including Yale, Stanford, and Princeton, manage their capital.

He has also funded an artificial intelligence research institute at a major state-run university in China to develop technology to benefit government authorities.

Hillhouse Capital Group, founded by Zhang in 2005, has minority stakes in some of the biggest tech companies in China and the United States, including Tencent, Alibaba, Facebook, Amazon, and Uber. Since his company has flourished, Zhang made some generous donations to his alma maters in China and the United States.

At Yale, where he earned a master’s degree from the School of Management, Zhang in January 2010 donated $8,888,888, a figure that represents an auspicious amount in Chinese culture.

According to Zhang’s biography on his company’s website, he’s currently on the board of trustees at Yale and chairs the university’s Asia Development Council, an alumni group that seeks to bolster the school’s ties in Asia.

Yale officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment by The Epoch Times regarding Zhang’s donation.

Zhang also made donations to his undergraduate college, Renmin University, which is located in Beijing. After making a 10 million yuan donation (about $1.4 million) in 2010, he was appointed vice chairman of the university’s board of directors.

In June 2017, he donated 300 million yuan (roughly $45.1 million) to the school, which used the funding to establish the Gaoling School of Artificial Intelligence (Gaoling AI), offering undergraduate education and graduate-level research in the field of AI.

A closer look at the institution reveals ambitions to fulfill the Chinese regime’s national interests.

Renmin University Background

Renmin, which was established in 1937 by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), is one of China’s top five universities. Prior to the Party taking control of China in 1949, it was one of the main schools providing political training for CCP members.

On its website, the university boasts programs that have trained Beijing’s top leaders in the Politburo, a 25-member body of the Party’s elite.

The university is also an active participant in the CCP’s overseas propaganda operations, having established 12 Confucius Institutes overseas, according to the school’s website. A growing number of higher education campuses in the United States, Australia, and Canada have recently shut down some Confucius Institutes over concerns about their role in stifling academic free speech.

Renmin didn’t have an AI department prior to Zhang’s donation.

AI Centers

The Gaoling AI website clearly states on its “about us” webpage that the school is “supported by Zhang Lei’s contributions.”

At the opening ceremony for the AI school held on April 22, Renmin President Liu Wei said that “Renmin, Zhang, and Hillhouse Capital all agreed to use Zhang’s donation to build Gaoling AI.”

According to the school’s reports, officials from Yale, Princeton, and MIT also attended the ceremony.

The ceremony also served as the “unveiling” for two research centers within the school. Their Chinese names can be translated as “center of AI research for social governance,” and “international communications and big data AI lab.”

Their exact funding structures are unclear, but the two centers work closely with Gaoling AI. For example, Gaoling’s executive dean, Wen Jirong, is also the AI center’s executive director.

The AI center is a joint project of Renmin and the China Association for Science and Technology, a professional organization whose charter statement says that its mission is to “serve as a bridge between the Chinese Communist Party” and science and tech professionals.

During the unveiling ceremony, the association’s Party secretary, Huai Jinpeng, said the AI center aims to follow Party leader Xi Jinping’s direction “to develop an AI system that is suitable for the government to provide services and make policy decisions.”

The AI lab is a joint project of Renmin and China International Publishing Group, a state-run publisher directly under the supervision of the CCP’s propaganda department.

At the same ceremony, the publisher’s bureau chief, Du Zhanyuan, said that the AI lab will “breed new AI broadcasting projects” by working with the government’s international propaganda “big data service platform.” He didn’t provide details.

China’s Ambitions

Developing AI technology is one of China’s national priorities, as part of Beijing’s plans to build tech sectors that can compete on a global scale.

At a science and tech national conference held in May 2016, Xi Jinping spoke of the need to make breakthroughs in big data, cloud computing, and AI.

In July 2017, China’s State Council, a cabinet-like agency of the central government, announced a detailed strategy outlining China’s desire to become a “world leader” in AI by 2030.

But AI applications in China have alarmed human rights observers.

For example, China plans to install the world’s largest surveillance camera system, which will be equipped with AI facial recognition capabilities that collect data on citizens in real time. The Chinese regime plans to install 220 million of these cameras across the country by 2020.

Such equipment is already employed by Chinese authorities to monitor and suppress dissidents, activists, and minority groups, especially in the region of Xinjiang, where the local Uyghur Muslim population faces unprecedented surveillance in their daily lives.

Nicole Hao contributed to this report.

Follow Annie on Twitter: @annieeenyc
RECOMMENDED