How millionaire Chen Guangbiao became the most interesting man in China

Chen Guangbiao, a bespectacled, babyfaced Chinese millionaire, really wants you to know who he is. He wants you to know how influential he is. How charismatic he is. How beloved he is. How prominent he is. But ultimately, Chen Guangbiao really just wants you to know Chen Guangbiao.

“How many Americans know that I am here in New York right now?” Chen asked New York Magazine’s Jessica Pressler earlier this year in an interview at the Essex House in Manhattan. “How many media outlets have written about me? Out of 300 million Americans, what percentage would you say have heard of me?” Then, later, he leaned in. “Tell me,” he said. “Do you think Americans like what I do? Any of this? Will they like me?”

He’s not off to a great start. The man hails himself on his business card as the “Most Influential Person of China,” the “Most Prominent Philanthropist of China,” the “Most Well-known and Beloved Chinese Role Model” and, simply, “China’s Foremost.” But he hasn’t had much luck in the United States. It began with his failed bid to buy the New York Times — “I’m very good at working with Jews,” he said — and now encompasses Wednesday’s debacle at Loeb Boathouse in Central Park.

Chinese millionaire Chen Guangbiao sings "We Are the World" during a lunch he sponsored for hundreds of needy New Yorkers at Loeb Boathouse in New York's Central Park June 25, 2014. Several hundred people showed up for the lunch and Chen entertained them by singing "We Are the World," the 1985 charity hit song to fund African famine relief, and a ceremony in which Chen was presented with a certificate declaring him "the world's greatest philanthropist." REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS POLITICS SOCIETY POVERTY) - RTR3VQR1
Chen sings “We Are the World.” (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Last week, Chen took out an ad in the New York Times. He was wearing a thin grin and many gold medals for unknown reasons. He said he plans to host 1,000 “poor and destitute” Americans for lunch, each of whom “will receive 300 dollars.” He vowed to “fill the world with love,” compared himself to Chinese cultural icon Lei Feng, and later assured that he would sing “We are the World” in English at the lunch.

He made good on all his promises — “We are the World” was indeed sung, and sung buoyantly — but he forgot one thing: the money. The $90,000 was instead donated to New York City Rescue Mission. And by meal’s end, the 250 homeless people who showed up for steak and green beans were calling him a “fraud” and a “thief,” according to the New York Daily News.

“The meal was lousy, the cash didn’t come,” Clarence Taylor said to the newspaper. “Prey on someone else. Why are you preying on the homeless?”

Another man, retired Vietnam war veteran Harry Brooks, told Agence France-Presse he was “highly upset” that he didn’t get the cash, but conceded he enjoyed the food “very much. I could use the $300. Clothing for one thing.”

One man told the Daily News it made “no sense. A lot of us are down on our luck. We really needed that money. That’s why we came. All these people wouldn’t be here if they weren’t getting nothing but some steak and some string beans.”

How did Chen Guangbiao go so wrong so fast? Audacity has always been both kind and merciless to Chen. The quality dragged him out of a poor farming community north of Shanghai, where two of his siblings starved to death and where he began working at age nine, hauling water into the village to sell it cup by cup to support his family. It pushed him through Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine. And it propelled him to found his own recycling business, amass $800 million of unknown provenance, and soar into onto the list of China’s richest 400 people.

Chen Guangbiao, dressed in green, sings on top of cars in Nanjing, Jiangsu province October 10, 2012. Chen, a Chinese entrepreneur, bought 43 Geely cars to compensate people whose Japanese-brand cars had been damaged during a series of anti-Japan protests throughout China last month. Chen dressed in green to advocate environmentally friendly means of transport, local media reported. Picture taken October 10, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer (CHINA - Tags: SOCIETY BUSINESS ENVIRONMENT TRANSPORT TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) CHINA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN CHINA - RTR390CP
Chen sings on top of cars in China in 2012. (Reuters)

It also, however, led him into an unusual quest to purchase the New York Times. Chen is famous in China for sliding cash to victims of China’s 2008 earthquake, posing with stacks of money, wearing green suits and selling “canned fresh air.” But he wanted fame outside China’s borders.

On Jan. 5 of this year, he penned a bold editorial in the Global Times headlined, “I intend to buy The New York Times, please don’t take it as a joke.”

Comparing his purchase of the Gray Lady to a spacecraft taking off for the moon, he said he wanted to “rebuild [the Times's] credibility and influence. … The tradition and style of the New York Times make it very difficult to have objective coverage of China. If we could purchase it, its tone might turn around.”

He confessed he was “bewildered” that some had thought his acquisition funny. “I may be a maverick, but it doesn’t mean I like playing tricks. I want to purchase the New York Times.”

Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. The Times declined the offer, and he immediately queried the Wall Street Journal to see if it was interested in having him as its owner. (It wasn’t.)

“Chen said he was aware that many American papers were Jewish-owned,” the South China Morning Post reported. “He said he was up for the job since he had ‘equally competent IQ and EQ’ compared with Jews. ‘I am very good at working with Jews,’” Chen offered.

When he met with a Journal reporter, he quickly posed for photographs with hired security guards, who declined his request to brandish their guns for the picture — liability concerns, they said.

He then forked over one of his business cards to the Journal reporter. It described his charisma, influence and heroism. “Please remember one thing,” Chen said. “Whatever I say is true.”

Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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