Tuesday September 17, 2019

Remarks as Prepared by Ms. Florence A. Davis, President, The Starr Foundation

U.S.-China Policy Foundation 23rd Annual Gala Dinner
December 5, 2018, Washington, DC

 

 

Thank you for the honor of receiving the U.S.-China Policy Foundation’s Philanthropic Excellence Award on behalf of The Starr Foundation, and thank you, ladies and gentlemen and distinguished guests, for permitting me to make some remarks about the Foundation’s history in China.

This is a particularly fraught time in the U.S. to discuss almost anything, let alone U.S. China relations, and I am particularly concerned tonight because I work for Hank Greenberg, for whom China is almost a home away from home.  And right now we are celebrating the Starr Insurance Companies’ 100th anniversary of doing business in China, so I had better get this right!

I always thought that I was pretty good at amateur diplomacy until an incident at the University of California at Berkeley a number of years ago.  The Foundation had donated several million dollars to build a Starr East Asian Library on two campuses:  Columbia on the east coast and Cal Berkeley on the west.

I travelled to Berkeley to dedicate the Starr Library and, knowing that the audience would include Chinese dignitaries, Chinese faculty and Chinese alumni, I wore a festive red jacket, originally purchased for Chinese New Year’s celebrations.  I wore a gold dragon pin, and my speech contained a few carefully selected Confucian analects.   Well, I was very proud of myself for being so culturally aware.  Until afterwards…

At a reception following the dedication, I was approached by a group of older Chinese gentlemen, all Cal alumni as I could tell from their giant blue “Cal Football” buttons pinned prominently on their suit coats.  One of the gentlemen said “Mrs. Davis, I want to thank The Starr Foundation for this beautiful building.”  Then he grabbed the sleeve of my jacket and added, “But never wear Stanford’s football colors again on this campus!”

So much for my cultural sensitivity and diplomacy!  I learned a valuable lesson for someone who went to a women’s college (which, by definition, had no varsity football team)—always research a school’s team colors before venturing onto a campus.

But I think I can safely tell you one story about the Foundation’s history in China, which I think demonstrates the power of patient and sincere efforts to build enduring relationships between our two great nations.

The Foundation has given away $3.5 billion since its inception in 1955.  Of that total, more than $310 million has been granted to China-related projects and programs.  But my story has to do with one of our smaller grants, a mere $500,000.

At the Summer Palace in Beijing, high above the main buildings and gardens of the Palace grounds, is the Baoyun (Precious Cloud) Pavilion, built around 1750 at the behest of the Qianlong Emperor, a devout follower of Tibetan Buddhism.  The Pavilion is remarkable because every element of its structure is made of cast bronze.

The Pavilion was not destroyed by western invaders during the Opium Wars in the mid-1800s, nor by any of the fires that struck the wooden buildings of the Summer Palace over the years.  But around 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion, ten of the twenty original bronze window casements and door panels (later called the Tong Ting Panels) were stolen from the Baoyun Pavilion and ended up at an auction house in Shanghai in 1910 where they were purchased by a French banking executive.  The Chinese government tried to buy the bronzes back, but in 1912 they were sent to France.

Eighty years later, in December 1992, an antique art specialist contacted one of Hank Greenberg’s partners at Starr to say that the panels had been consigned for sale in France.  Hank, as the chairman of The Starr Foundation, arranged for the Foundation to purchase the bronzes for $500,000, which also paid $15,000 for their shipment from France to the Chinese Bureau of State Relics in July 1993.

Twenty-five years ago, at the December 1993 ceremony celebrating the return of the bronze panels to the Summer Palace, the Director of the State Bureau of Cultural Relics said

The recovery of these missing relics has always been the cherished desire of…generations of the Chinese people….this is the first contribution made by a foreign [organization] for the recovery of missing precious relics….

Sending back the bronze windows…has opened a new window to link together peoples’ feelings.  We can see through this window a brand new field of friendly cooperation among people of different races, in different countries and under different social systems.

I can tell you that this gift was as meaningful to us at Starr as it was to the people of China.

It has been my privilege to work with Hank Greenberg and others at Starr to build bridges between our two great nations.  And I know, for our part, we look forward to the next hundred years.