China’s most ridiculous philanthropist accused of ‘faking’ ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is a fantastically viral method of raising funds and promoting awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Participants generally create a video of themselves tipping a bucket of ice water over their head, and then nominate others to do the same. Most participants also donate a sum of money to ALS research.

Chen Guangbiao is a Chinese businessman and philanthropist. He's a wealthy man, with an estimated fortune of more than $800 million in 2013, largely built up through his recycling business. He made a name for himself in the United States last year with his now-abandoned bid to buy the New York Times, but in China he is better known for his well-publicized, though often controversial, acts of charity.

Chen made his own Ice Bucket Challenge video this week, and in true form, it was completely over the top. Chen wasn't content to simply dump cold water over his head: Instead, according to images posted to Weibo, he fully submerged himself in ice water for half an hour and lay on a slab of ice. Chen says he will donate 1 million yuan for every person who can stay in ice water longer than he did.

It's a typical Chen Guangbiao move: A ridiculous, surreal act of philanthropy that seems designed to promote him just as much as it is to promote the charity.

Chen, for instance, claims to have personally dug out 200 bodies from the aftermath of a Sichuan earthquake in 2008. Earlier this year, he held a well-publicized, though ultimately somewhat disastrous meal for hundreds of homeless people in New York. To get a sense of his modus operandi, his business card lists him not only as "Most Prominent Philanthropist of China" but also "China Moral Leader" and "Most Influential Person of China." Chen says that his "flashy philanthropy" is designed to push his fellow Chinese mega-rich into following his lead. His critics say it's all heartless self-promotion.

Not everyone is convinced, and Chen's Ice Bucket Challenge looks set to be just as controversial. On Weibo, users are accusing Chen of faking the challenge. Shanghaiist has rounded up some of the criticisms:

When the video got reposted by thousands of netizens, many doubted the authenticity of of the stunt, namely, the ice. A web user named 才让多吉 observed that the ice sank into the water, and claimed that it was acrylic.

Another netizen named 钢铁侠 claimed that "Human beings can only stay in ice water for a few minutes. At the beginning, they must have poured warm water and fake ice onto Chen," Tencent News reports.

Chen's team have denied such accusations, but his stunt and the reaction to it says a lot about how philanthropy is seen in China. State watchdogs have said that the vast majority of Chinese charities don't meet international standards, and a series of scandals has led many Chinese citizens to be suspicious of donating money.

China's Ministry of Civil Affairs has praised the Ice Bucket Challenge – a singularly successful example of viral fundraising, for sure – on its Weibo account. However, even the government couldn't avoid some apprehension; It told Chinese citizens to be wary of the challenge's “entertainment and commercial tendencies.”

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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