As he geared up to sing, karaoke style, a song he had apparently authored (“My Chinese Dream”) to a few dozen reporters in a conference at a hotel on Central Park South, one thing seemed about this eccentric Chinese millionaire seemed clear — Chen Guangbiao isn’t afraid of the limelight.
“Since you all have equipment in your hands, you don’t have to applaud for me,” Chen said through an interpreter as the song started.
Chen was almost unknown in New York until two weeks ago, though he had a big reputation in China. Reportedly one of the 400 richest people in China, the recycling magnate is claims to be the number one philanthropist in the country; Chen was reportedly worth $US740 million in 2012, but he has pledged to give away most, if not all, of his wealth before his death, inspired by Bill Gates’ “Giving Pledge.”
Since Chen offered to buy the New York Times, however, he is a star in the Big Apple. Chen made the announcement at the end of last year, explaining that he was working with an unnamed Hong Kong financier and due to meet with a “leading shareholder” in New York in early 2014 to discuss a deal. Chen is an eccentric man by any standards — he owns at least one lime green suit — and his announcement was met with shock. While the New York Times announced that they have “no information” about negotiations with Chen, the millionaire shot back with an op-ed in the Chinese state newspaper Global Times.
“I have said as long as the price is reasonable,” Chen wrote, “There is nothing that cannot be bought.”
Officially, the press conference today wasn’t devoted to the New York Times rumours, though it did touch on it. Even so, it was memorable in its own right — and may showcase some of the problems Chen might have if he truly wants to get in on the New York Times.
After his song, Chen explained why he was here. He brought out a mother and daughter, Hao Huijun and Chen Guo, who wore hats and veils as they walked up to the stage. Chen carefully removed their veils to show the disfiguring marks to their faces. The pair had been severely burned over 10 years ago, he explained, and now Chen was going to pay millions of dollars for them both to have reconstructive surgery in New York.
That sounds incredibly nice, of course, but the second Chen opened the floor for questions, things got nasty. You see, Hao and Chen were injured during a 2001 self-immolation protest when they were part of the spiritual movement Falun Gong, banned in China since 1999. While it rarely makes headlines abroad, the Falun Gong situation is extremely controversial within China and the Chinese diaspora, and the 2001 self-immolation case has been no different — many have suggested that the Chinese government may have actually played a role in the high profile protest in a bid to discredit Falun Gong.
At the press conference, the questions bore a remarkably aggressive tone — many of the reporters were from media outlets sceptical of the Chinese government, including the Falun Gong-linked New Tang Dynasty Television and the Epoch Times. At one point a man asking a question (who later turned out to be from the World Organisation to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong) grew so irate during his questioning that when the microphone was taken away from him, he carried on speaking — virtually shouting. The session abruptly ended after a handful of questions, and after he left some of those gathered complained that Chen was here as part of a pro-Communist Party publicity stunt.
In a relatively modest hotel suite upstairs after the press conference, Chen told Business Insider that he had not been anticipating the controversy, but he was not concerned. He said that Hao and Chen had been writing to him for years. “As the number one Chinese philanthropist, I felt obligated to help them,” he explained. “This is my honest thinking.”
Chen went on to say he had helped over two million people with his philanthropy and had donated money after natural disasters such as the 2010 Japanese Tsunami or the Haitian earthquake from the same year. When asked what lies behind his style of charity, however — a style which he himself as dubbed “flashy philanthrophy” — Chen immediately distanced himself from the Chinese state.
“There is nothing related to the government,” he said.”I was raised up as a poor child, when I was four years old my older brother and sister starved to death. Because of my high profile over the past few years, the government officials, the rich people, have not liked to interact with me. Chinese people like to do things with a low profile, they do not like to expose their wealth. Wealthy people and government officials, they keep a distance from me.”
Chen says he sees himself as different from other wealthy Chinese businessmen. “I never get involved in drinking, smoking, or playing poker games,” he explains, before waving his large Samsung phone. “If anyone ever finds me doing these things, with proof of photograph, I will reward this person 10,000 RMB [approximately $US1,600].”
His “flashy philanthropy” was a tactic, he explained, to get other wealthy Chinese businessmen to donate their own fortunes. “My reputation as a high profile philanthropist will, I hope, give some pressure to other rich people,” Chen explains, before adding that the pressure on him is a burden. “Even though I am smiling, I have some suffering in my heart. How can no one extend their help to me since I have helped so many other people?”
Chen seems sincere when he says stuff like this, and he genuinely puts a lot of effort (and money) into charity work and environmentalism. He says he wants to bring this to America, proposing to use his environmental demolitions methods to San Francisco to help demolish the old Bay Bridge (and to donate all his net profits to charity, 60% within America).
Still, Chen does have a remarkable confidence that may verge on egomania — if he had a worse haircut he might come across as a Chinese Donald Trump. As unlikely as the purchase might be, does America want its paper of record to be owned by a man whose nine titles on his English-business card include “Most Influential Person of China” and “China Moral Leader”?
When I asked Chen how he’d help the New York Times, he argued that his Times bid had already helped the paper gain more name recognition amongst China’s 1.3 billion citizens. How would he change the country’s coverage of China? I pressed him on the issue of the islands in the East China Sea, known alternatively as the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, at the center of a simmering conflict between China and Japan. Chen clearly feels strongly about them — he took an advertisement in the Times last year that called on the U.S. to accept the islands as Chinese territory.
Chen’s refused to get drawn into specifics, instead replying wih the Chinese idiom: “Seek truth with facts.” The saying apparently dates back to the Han Dynasty, but Chen attributed it to the person who popularised it in the 20th century: Mao Zedong.
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