foreign affairs

The Chinese Tycoon Who Wants to Buy the Times Held an Awkward Press Event Yesterday

China's most famous philanthropist Chen Guangbiao (C) greets the crowd at a charity event during a visit to the Taiwan city of Hsinchu on January 27, 2011. Chen, well-known in China for his flamboyant style of charity, started handing out cash on the first day of a controversial trip to Taiwan that has sparked criticism and protests from anti-China groups.
Hello, America! Photo: PATRICK LIN/AFP/Getty Images

Chen Guangbiao, the eccentric Chinese recycling mogul who last week said he “intends” to buy the not-for-sale New York Times, had some face time with the American public yesterday, convening a press conference in the Marriott Essex House’s opulent art deco ballroom. Though let’s not kid ourselves — this wasn’t supposed to be his trip’s main event; despite his overtures, Times top brass refused to meet. The assembled reporters seemed to have all gotten their invitations only the day before.

The press invite read, “Asia’s #1 philanthropist to announce he will underwrite full surgical regimen and care for horrifically burned mother and daughter,” but lucky media were treated to the Chen Guangbiao stand-up hour, as, through a translator, he veered off topic and sometimes spoke in the third person (“Chen Guangbiao’s flashy philanthropy will not be discouraged by any storm or rain”).

The Chen approach can feel modeled on a mullet: There’s the prim-and-proper Chen Guangbiao you think you’re getting at a somber press conference in the frescoed Essex House ballroom about million-dollar surgery for burn victims. Then there’s the Chen Guangbiao who, once this solemn event begins, pops out and sings karaoke style: “The whole world will witness my Chinese dream!” (He wrote the lyrics himself.)

Hao Huijun and Chen Guo, the “horrifically burned mother and daughter,” turned out to be two of the protesters who self-immolated on Tiananmen Square in 2001, an incident the Chinese government denies it staged to justify persecuting Falun Gong practitioners. Outside the Marriott,  a hundred or so Falun Gong protesters marched along Central Park South in the minus-15-degree wind chill, holding signs on state-run concentration camps and harvested organs. (Chen would later try to hand out fleece scarves to the crowd; there were no takers.) Inside, Chen was explaining that, really, he’s a demolition expert; that he’s “No. 1” in China in coming in and tearing stuff down; and that he didn’t want to talk about the Times deal or Falun Gong. 

Tired of wincing, his minders shut everything down twenty minutes early.

Times-Loving Chinese Tycoon Held Awkward Presser