TIANJIN, China – Yao Ming thinks China needs more freedom -- at least in one regard. The former NBA basketball star complained here on Thursday that his charitable foundation is hampered by Chinese rules limiting to 10 percent the share of contributions that can go toward expenses such as salaries for executives, office space and travel.
He contrasts those strictures to the rules that apply in the United States. "They have more freedom," he said, during an appearance at the World Economic Forum. "They can set up their own rules and principles for donations."
In China, "the government regulations are quite tight," Yao added. "We don't have enough flexibility." As a result, he said, his foundation "can't recruit the most excellent people." He carefully added, grinning: "It doesn't mean the people we have aren't excellent."
Americans may be surprised to hear their relatively liberal mode of philanthropy held up as a model. Major charitable efforts have come under scrutiny for reportedly spending more than half of their contributions on expenses.
Yao's comments drew looks of mild surprise from a room full of Chinese and foreign fans, many of whom used smartphones to take pictures in brazen -- and delighted -- disregard of multiple announcements forbidding photos.
Known globally as China’s breakout basketball sensation, the statuesque Yao -- all seven-foot-six of him -- has long served as a de facto Chinese cultural ambassador. He also occupies a seat in the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, not traditionally a place for decrying lack of freedom in the Middle Kingdom.
But, as he reflected on his years in the United States, where he anchored the Houston Rockets basketball team for parts of eight seasons, and where he still counts numerous friends, Yao said that Americans enjoy an edge when it comes to philanthropy.
The nonprofit Yao Ming Foundation was launched in 2008 following the catastrophic earthquake in Sichuan province, in southwestern China. Under Yao’s guidance, his foundation has subsequently devoted funds to rebuilding schools in the affected area.
Yao has also led high-profile conservation campaigns, traveling to Africa to decry the killing of elephants for ivory that has flowed in large part to China.
“I was shocked by feelings I could not carry back with the photographs,” he said here, as he recalled a visit to an elephant orphanage where he encountered a 10-day-old baby whose mother had been killed in the ivory harvest.
Yao has also urged Chinese consumers to eschew shark’s fin soup in response to overfishing and has helped raise funds to spread awareness of HIV/AIDS.
Yao’s protestations about the limits on the spending of foundation contributions presented an apparent contrast to the spirit of charity advertised on his website, which notes that he and his wife, Ye Li, "have committed to paying the Foundation's administrative costs so that 100% of any contribution from the public is directed to the charitable cause.”
"What we lack is flexibility," he said Thursday. "We all want to hire people with the highest expertise, but we have no ability to recruit the top people."