Back when the Pew survey was published, the big China-takeover fear was about a Chinese meat company buying Smithfield Foods, which distributes pork. Now a smiling Chinese billionaire is talking about picking up the country’s foremost newspaper. “If I succeed, I will conduct some necessary reforms,” Chen wrote in his Global Times editorial. “The ultimate goal of which is to make the paper’s reports more authentic and objective, thus rebuilding its credibility and influence.”
Who is this strange man? And why does he want our newspaper? Chen smiles beatifically. “Chinese and U.S. medias are the head of the locomotive of the world,” he says. “If both join hands together, they could exert better social benefit.”
Chen grew up north of Shanghai, in a farming area where the farming wasn’t any good. Two of his siblings starved to death, and Chen began working at 9, lugging water by the bucketful to the village and selling it by the cup to support his family and his studies. After he came home from one such sojourn, “my mom told me the neighbor next door he is crying, because he did not have money to pay for his books,” he says. “Without a word, I went to school. I paid for his books and I brought them to his house.” The boy’s mother, he recalls, was moved to tears, and the next day at school, Chen’s teacher made a big show of presenting him with a small paper star, torn from a back-to-school banner.
“She says, ‘Chen Guangbiao, put this star on your face,’ ” he recalls. “I said, ‘How can I do that without any glue?’ She said, ‘Okay, just take it home and put it on your face in your house.’ At that time, I used my saliva and put it on the back and put it on my face. But the saliva was not sticky enough, so the red star fell off on the ground. So.” Chen, sitting in his hotel suite, dramatically pantomimes picking his nose, then pokes his cheek with his hand.
“He used nasal discharge and put it back on his face, so it never fell,” the translator reports.
Chen laughs. “After class, when classmates asked, ‘Why do you have the star?,’ I told them I got the star because I paid for my classmates’ books. And after school I told everyone in the village.” The next day, he says, “I saw the effect of that little star. Many classmates help the teacher to wash the blackboard and clean the classroom, and they say, ‘Teacher, I am doing good things, can you award me with that little star?’ So this little story told me, if we do any good things you should let other people know, and it will motivate them to do good things. So you see this is the general idea behind me buying the New York Times newspaper.”
His specific interest in the Times began a few years ago, when he bought an ad in the paper calling for the Diaoyu Islands to be returned to the Chinese, who he believes are the rightful owners. (The Japanese disagree, even on the name.) “The influence exceeded my imagination,” he says. Sensing he might have found the biggest platform yet for his philanthropy, Chen began to formulate his plan to buy the paper.
As the title of his op-ed suggested, most people found the idea laughable. While Chen claims he spoke to a Times shareholder who had agreed to set up a meeting, a spokeswoman for the paper said no such meeting was planned, and the company has refused to comment further. The paper didn’t even cover Chen’s press conference, which he seems miffed about. As he sees it, he has done the Times a favor. “Originally, only Chinese officials and wealthy people knew about New York Times newspaper,” he says. “Now around a billion Chinese know about it because of my intention to acquire it.”
But the Times at least seemed not to be taking it as a joke. And probably it shouldn’t. Unhappy with its coverage in the foreign press, the Chinese government has been working lately to create its own good press. “There is a feeling emerging in [Chinese] society that if we don’t like the point of view, we should just buy them,” one academic told The Wall Street Journal. Last year, the Chinese state-run television company purchased a stake in a large South African newspaper chain, and a number of other entities have been scooped up by Chinese investors with ties to the regime. “The CCP is having these tycoons purchase newspapers,” says Sarah Cook, a research analyst at Freedom House, which recently published a paper on the Communist Party’s forays into foreign media, “and the coverage will start changing. You won’t see articles about Tibet, or they won’t call what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989 a ‘massacre.’ ” So far this has happened mostly in Africa, where China has economic interests. “The businessmen will often deny they were put up to it by the government, but then there are a couple instances where you see evidence of quid pro quo,” Cook says. “They’ll purchase the paper, the coverage will start changing, and then they’ll get this big government deal that’s really good for their business.”