“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.
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.”
“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.