“How many Americans know that I am here in New York right now?” Chen Guangbiao asks, sitting in an armchair between his translator and his publicist in his suite at the Essex House. “How many media outlets have written about me?”
An assistant offers him a cup of jasmine tea, which he blows on pensively. “Out of 300 million Americans,” he goes on, “what percentage would you say have heard about me?”
The publicist, a sweet young woman from DKC Communications, looks slightly flustered. “Well, it’s kind of hard to say, because it’s still ongoing,” she says, tucking back an errant strand of hair. “As you know, the past few days have been … kind of a whirlwind.”
If she seems overwhelmed, she has good reason to be. Chen, a boisterous demolition and recycling tycoon from Nanjing, had arrived three days earlier, after making a bold announcement delivered via an editorial in Global Times titled: “I Intend to Buy the New York Times, Please Don’t Take It As a Joke.” Then there was the press conference in the Essex ballroom, at which Chen serenaded the media with a song, “My Chinese Dream,” that he had written himself, and literally unveiled two badly burned women who claim to have set themselves on fire at the behest of Falun Gong. He was paying for their medical treatment, he said, as the virtually faceless women waved and smiled at the crowd like a pair of homecoming queens.
Chen is a multifaceted guy, as his business card attests. According to the card, Chen is not only CEO of China Huang-Pu, a recycling and salvage company, but the “Most Influential Person of China,” “Most Well-Known and Beloved Chinese Role Model,” and “Most Prominent Philanthropist of China.”
“This Chinese Millionaire Has the Most Ridiculous Business Card,” said the website BuzzFeed, which knows from overexuberance.
This is not exactly the kind of coverage most serious businessmen hope to generate, but Chen seems pleased. Back in China, he has created a philanthropic persona that combines elements of Warren Buffett and Oprah with a morning radio host’s penchant for stunts. There was the time when, wearing a lime-green suit, he vowed to buy new cars for owners of Japanese-made vehicles whose cars were damaged in anti-Japan protests; the occasion when he beat his own Mercedes to promote sustainable transportation; the particularly smoggy day in Beijing when he sold canned “fresh air” emblazoned with his face to passersby. He’s shown up in fatigues to natural disasters, handed out cash to villagers, and—more than once—had his smiling face photographed from behind stacks of renminbi. “I’ll give you another title: Most Shameless Person in China,” one Chinese blogger quipped.
Picking up his phone, Chen shows me how famous he is. “Look,” he says. On the screen is a picture of him posed on a diving board in swim trunks. “This is my participation in a TV program inviting famous figures to dive,” he boasts. “This height is the equivalent to the height of three stories building. They said, ‘Do you dare?’ And I did it.” He did, however, suffer an injury. “The water went into my …” The translator frowns. “Nasal channel? No.” He reaches for his English dictionary. “Underneath,” he adds, gesturing behind him.
“Oh …” says the publicist.
“I bought a woman’s diaper,” Chen continues. “So when the water comes through my— ”
“Anus!” finishes the translator, who has found the right page. “Sorry, that word escaped me.”
Then Chen leans forward intently: “Tell me,” he says. “Do you think Americans like what I do? All of this? Will they like me?”
Now I’m not sure how to answer. On the one hand: Sure? It’s not like George Soros ever sings, or talks about his anus—at least not in public. On the other hand …
“Ahhhhh!” an old woman screamed when she saw Chen bearing down on her on a New York City street soon after he arrived. It turned out he was just trying to help with her groceries—the sort of everyday act of heroism he’s known for in China. “But she was like, ‘Who is this strange man?’ ” says a friend of Chen’s family from China, a young Realtor in Flushing who doesn’t want his name used for fear of being dragged into the circus. Most Americans have reacted to Chen in pretty much the same way: with suspicion and fear.
As China’s power has grown, so too has Americans’ anxiety about it. A Pew survey last summer put American approval of the People’s Republic at a lousy 37 percent, citing concerns about jobs, human rights, and, oh yeah, freedom of the press. The Chinese Communist Party, always a bit sensitive about its image, has in the past few years aggressively gone after news organizations that paint it as repressive, mostly by being extra repressive. It’s been particularly punitive toward the Times. After the paper reported on the immense family wealth of former prime minister Wen Jiabao, the regime kicked out two Times journalists for supposed visa violations, blocked the Times’s site—resulting in a 20 percent stock drop—and, it is widely believed, hacked into the e-mails of the paper’s reporters.