“Me, I am lonely,” Chen says, pointing to his chest. “The general government officials and rich people, they don’t like me.” If anything, he says, he has offended them with his high-profile giving. “Because the way the Chinese rich people display their means is to purchase private airplanes and private yachts. They eat, they drink, they gamble, and they call prostitutes. And my constant donation gives them a lot of pressure.”
But Chen—who, according to Fast Company, has a picture of Wen Jiabao on his office wall—can just as easily praise the government, particularly when it comes to handling the press. “Currently I think in China, the freedom of press is wide open,” he says. “What the Chinese government hates is the rumors and hearsay, reporting frivolous facts.” For instance, when some reporters dug up frivolous facts about how his charitable contributions were much less than he claimed, the government put out a directive banning reporters from “negative coverage of Chen Guangbiao.”
One of the theories floating around regarding Chen’s agenda is that he isn’t really interested in the Times at all—that he has just thrown that out there, like a flare, in order to draw the media to his press conference, the real point of which is to turn Americans against Falun Gong, the spiritual practice that has long been a thorn in the Chinese government’s side. Banned in China not long before the incident in which Chen’s women claimed to be burned (which many believe was a government-sponsored hoax), the spiritual practice has been gaining followers in the United States, particularly in cities with large Chinese populations.* “Is that why Chen Guangbiao, with his outlandish claims to buy the New York Times, and stunts in the streets wearing his lime-green suit, has come to New York City?” asked the Epoch Times, a Falun-friendly paper. By towing this particular party line, Chen could be getting some quid pro quo, or attempting to curry favor.
Or it might be an expression of his genuine beliefs. “Falun Gong burned 90 percent of their faces,” he tells me at the Essex House. “Why did I decide to bring these women for treatment? Because when I took a look at them I felt pain in my heart. I’m the No. 1 person to donate for philanthropy. Currently my total donation amounts to $330 million. You can see the details on this CD,” he says, pressing promotional material into my hands.
“Now,” he says, bouncing out of his seat. “Let’s go to lunch.”
In the downstairs dining room, Chen shares some of his environmental-conservation tricks with me, the translator, and the exhausted publicist. Chen is very keen on protecting the environment, so much so that not long ago he renamed his tween sons Chen Environment and Chen Environmental Protection. “I always use the same napkin, and afterward I fold it up, like this,” he says, perking it up on the table. “So that water is not wasted to wash it. In a hotel, I only ever use one towel, for the whole week,” he goes on. “And sometimes, when I blow my nose, instead of using a tissue, I do it on my sleeve,” he says, miming the gesture. “Or into my hand. Then I wipe my hand inside my pocket.”
Chen may be a team player, but the idea that the wily Chinese government pushed him out into the world to spread its message seems unlikely, as if we dispatched Donald Trump to converse with Afghanistan’s tribal elders. “I think he’s a lone wolf,” says Bob Dietz, the Asia Program Coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “I would say if anything he’s an embarrassment to the Party.”
Clearly, Chen’s most important agenda item is himself. “Can I play you one video clip?” he asks as lunch draws to an end. He holds out his phone to show me a video of him dancing and singing to another song he wrote, “Let’s All Be Good Men Together.” “I want Americans to know that I am a good man,” he says, beaming. Later this afternoon, he is headed to The Wall Street Journal. “To see if there is any opportunity to cooperate with them,” he explains. “Every day I feel the social responsibility on my shoulder very heavy. Out of my heart I really want to exert influence over people.” (The meeting would not go well: On his way out of town, he’d tell a journalist that he hasn’t given up on his dream of “cooperation” with an American media property, and that “I’m very good at working with Jews.”)
Chen’s visit may not have accomplished all he had set out to achieve, but if nothing else he demonstrated a first-rate ability to attract attention. Before he leaves, he has one more question: “Do you think President Obama knows about me?” he asks. “Does Obama know that I am here in New York?”
*This article has been corrected to show that Falun Gong was banned in China before the incident in which the women at Chen's press conference claimed to be burned, not after.