Mon, Dec 29, 2008
Reader's Digest Asia
Jet Li: The Power of One

By Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop

Dec 26, 2004

AS HE struggled to keep his four-year-old daughter Jane above the surging water, Jet Li shouted for someone to help his nanny, who was holding his one-year-old daughter, Jada.

This was no action movie.

Like many people across Asia, Li was caught up in the real-life horror of the 2004 tsunami.

The Chinese gongfu movie star had come to the Maldives for a holiday with his wife Nina, two young daughters and nanny.

Just after 10 o' clock that Sunday morning, he had been standing by the pool at the Four Seasons Hotel, ready to take his two excited little girls into the sea.

Then he saw the water rising with terrifying speed. By the time he and the nanny had picked up Jane and Jada and turned back to the hotel, the water had reached their feet.

Within seconds it rose to his waist, then his chin. Li hoisted Jane onto his shoulders, but in the chaos lost his grip on Jada and the nanny.

As they were all swept towards the hotel, he cried out for help.

Four bystanders jumped into the water and grabbed Jada and the nanny before they went under.

Li managed to make it back to the hotel and was reunited with his wife, who had stayed in the safety of their room.

"When the wave was gone, there was nothing left," Li says.

"The electricity was down, all communications were down but for the hotel's satellite phone. We were told we had water for five days and food for three."

The Lis and dozens of other shaken guests spent the night in the hotel lobby.

While his family slept, he sat up, reflecting on what had happened.

He says: "Up to then, I had spent the first 41 years of my life thinking of Jet Li: Jet Li No. 1.

"But now I thought: However powerful, however famous, in that moment it cannot help you. I thought about my life and what I wanted to do."

May 18, 2008

Like so many towns and villages in central China, Yinghua was devastated by the 8.0-magnitude Sichuan earthquake.

Nearly 70,000 people across the region were killed and in Yinghua only a few buildings were left standing.

Today, six days after the quake, the streets are crowded with soldiers, relief volunteers and stunned survivors.

Wearing a dark-blue cap that slightly conceals his face, Li helps unload boxes of powdered milk, medicine, tents and other emergency supplies from the back of a lorry.

Not looking for star treatment, he's just one of many extras bringing help to the people of Sichuan.

In the time between the tsunami and the Sichuan earthquake, Jet Li transformed his life, dedicating much of his time to helping victims of disasters and the less fortunate.

Rather than just donate money, he set out to create an organisation that would make a genuine difference and draw upon the power of individuals around the world.

Following his ordeal in the Maldives, Li returned home to Hong Kong and swung into action.

After the tsunami, Li told his wife, "I have to do something right away." That's how the One Foundation was born, says Li.

On Jan 2, 2005, he announced he would give 500,000 yuan (S$105,788) for the victims of the tsunami and use another 500,000 yuan to start a foundation.

In the end, it took more than two years to create One Foundation, partly because Li had already committed to making several movies and partly because, by his own admission, he didn't have a clue where to start.

During his free time, he spoke with academics around the world and spent time at philanthropic organisations, such as the Rockefeller Foundation, to learn what makes a successful non-governmental organisation (NGO).

He adds: "I needed to spend time studying. What I learnt is you need transparency."

In other words, if people are going to support a charitable organisation, they need to trust that their money will actually reach the people in need.

April, 2007

Finally, the Red Cross Jet Li One Foundation was launched in China in April last year.

Though it works independently of the Red Cross, the tie-in allows the foundation to operate public fundraising activities in China.

The idea behind One Foundation is deceptively simple: Think big by thinking small. Starting in China, Li has set out to raise one yuan (15 cents) from every person each month.

He likens it to one big family helping each other out.

"I believe helping each other starts with the individuals. It is everybody's responsibility to give. If everyone gives one yuan every month, it will add up to billions of dollars."

To make that idea a reality, One Foundation has teamed up with the corporate sector.

For example, Chinese entrepreneur Jack Ma has agreed to let the foundation use AliPay, his company's online payment system, at no cost.

In practical terms, this means that very small donations don't get swallowed up by processing fees.

The foundation has raised nearly US$16 million (S$23.2 million) in just over 18 months, proving the power of Li's simple idea.

It has helped a number of disaster- relief efforts, including those involving the Yunnan Puer earthquake and the snowstorms that paralysed much of southern China early this year.

One Foundation has also been involved in longer-term projects, such as the "Sunshine in Your Heart" programme, which promotes mental-health education and consultation centres in Chinese schools, and organises seminars and courses in universities around China.

Because the foundation has built strong relationships with partners like airlines, it has been able to react very quickly to a disaster.

"I think too often something happens, people die, you see the photos and then you start donating. But by the time the money reaches the people, it's already quite a few days after the disaster and you're not even sure it's reaching them," Li says.

"What I want is to be prepared, to have a little money aside so that when something happens, we're ready to move quickly."

Perhaps Li's need for speed was best illustrated during the Sichuan earthquake.

When he heard about the disaster, on May 12, he knew they had to act quickly.

The foundation immediately launched a fundraising appeal, raising over US$7.35 million in just seven days for both short-term relief, such as in Yinghua, and reconstruction projects.

If speed is one pillar of One Foundation, another would have to be trust.

To that end, One Foundation operates on the principle of complete transparency. It issues quarterly updates and annual reports that detail how much money it has raised and how it is being spent.

The international accounting firm Deloitte audits its financial records free of charge, and all reports are available on the foundation's website (www.onefoundation.cn).

While a staff of 17 handle the day-to-day workings of the foundation, Li has focused much of his efforts on fundraising and spreading the word about the "one yuan" concept.

To this end, he put his movie career on hold for all of this year so he could devote himself completely to the foundation.

Through speaking functions and appearances at various conferences around the world, Li has, by his own estimate, reached out to about 50,000 people.

"I've spent the whole year giving university speeches. I need to talk to businessmen, companies to build up the relationship."

Li has also cajoled 300 well-known Chinese personalities, such as Ang Lee, Jackie Chan and John Woo, into giving their time to the foundation, mostly appearing at fundraising functions and offering public support for the foundation's activities.

He has big aspirations for One Foundation, and is already looking beyond China.

It is registered in Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Singapore, and is planning to open an office in Taiwan.

While the goal of One Foundation is the same, each country's approach will be slightly different.

For example, it plans to use Singapore as a base for training leaders of NGOs.

"Right now, we don't have a lot of future leaders. Not every NGO has the right people to use the money in the right way," Li says.

At the same time, he remains realistic about how much the foundation can achieve.

"The world has had problems for the last 2,000 years and will still have them for the next 2,000 years. But we can be part of the solution; we can help lessen some of those problems.

"I think it will take at least two generations, maybe 30 years, to change people's minds, for them to believe, 'Yes, I have a responsibility'."

The movie star is now confident he has sown the right seeds for the foundation, and while much more work is in store, he's getting ready to resume his movie career next year.

"Ultimately, if I can use my fame as an actor to promote the foundation every time I do a film, then it will help make the foundation stronger."

Even though some people have questioned why Li is doing this, he refuses to give in to doubt or regret.

"I always reply, "I spent the first 10 years of my life learning martial arts, then I spent 25 years making movies. Now I'm starting my third career".

"In fact, I am still making a movie really and everybody can be in it as a writer, actor, director and star. It's a movie of life. I want to change people's thinking, little bit by little bit."

Read also:
» Jet Power

For more Reader's Digest stories, click here .

This report appears in the January edition of Reader's Digest Asia and is published in my paper with the permission of the magazine.

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