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Mogul from China takes Manhattan

Lunch at Central Park’s Loeb Boathouse is an elegant affair, popular among well-heeled tourists and alumni networking associations for its lakeside view and excellent service. But this week, the restaurant hosted hundreds of homeless people, dozens of journalists, several bodyguards watching over a silver case most likely filled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, two badly disfigured survivors of self-immolation, and one Chen Guangbiao. A 45-year-old recycling tycoon and self-proclaimed “China’s Top Philanthropist,” Chen was in Manhattan to stage a charity event. What he ended up creating was something more like theater of the absurd — think of it as Samuel Beckett with Chinese characteristics.

While megaphone wielding protesters standing across the street called for the downfall of the Chinese Communist Party, inside the swank Boathouse hundreds of homeless people bused in from a shelter picked at sesame-seed encrusted tuna and expensive cuts of beef, and clapped politely as Chen belted out “We Are the World” — awkwardly, as Chen speaks almost no English.

“My way of doing things got a lot of criticism in China, but I hope what I’m doing here will get cheered on in the United States,” he said, to mild applause. “Homeless friends of America! What I am giving you is not a fish, but a fishpole.” He then quoted Chairman Mao Zedong, sang a communist song about the selfless hero Lei Feng, and performed elementary-school level magic tricks.

Earlier in June, Chen had taken out a massive ad in The New York Times — a paper he unsuccessfully tried to buy in January — promising to host a charity luncheon for 1,000 “poor and destitute Americans,” each of whom would receive $300 dollars.

Not surprisingly, in the days leading up to the event, Chen received a lot of coverage. “He smashed his own Mercedes to encourage people to ride bikes,” wrote CBS. “He sold canned air to call attention to China’s air pollution problem. He’s been known to hand out red envelopes of cash to the poor. And now, he’s in America.”

At 10 a.m., two hours before the Wednesday lunch, dozens of homeless people milled around in the park outside the restaurant, staring suspiciously at the fresh-faced Chinese volunteers, most of whom were incongruously dressed in the green uniforms of the 1950s People’s Liberation Army. Chen had promised tickets and cash to 1,000 homeless people, but it seemed that only a few hundred, organized by the shelter New York City Rescue Mission, would be allowed in.

“He’s a Chinese billionaire who was going to sing for us, and give us a free meal and $300, and now he’s not,” said the 63-year-old Frank Guiliani, who had come to the park hoping to get the free money and lunch, but who was stuck watching outside. “I had [expletive] to do today.”

Despite the tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on the event, the lunch felt very disorganized, as if it all had been thrown together recently. Which, indeed, it had: In his speech, Chen boasted he organized the entire event in just a few days, after his original plans — which he didn’t elaborate on — fell through.

The waitstaff looked offended, the audio quality was reminiscent of a high school auditorium and there were dozens of plates of wasted food. One of the employees at the shelter complained about the dessert choice. “I suggested chocolate cake for dessert. Many of the homeless are fighting addictions, and the sugar helps with that. But they wanted to serve berries instead.” Chen’s musical accompaniment for We Are the World, a group named Audible Chocolate, had only been found the day before, when one of Chen’s employees saw them busking. “We’re NYC people, and we’re down with homeless people,” said Lo Anderson, the group’s singer. “It seems like it was for a good cause.”

Chen is an easy target for ridicule, not unlike Donald Trump, that American avatar of craven self-promotion.

His English-language business card proclaims that he’s the “Most Charismatic Philanthropist of China,” and he seems in desperate need of validation. But like many Chinese of his generation, he comes from extreme poverty and has something to prove.

In 1966, Chairman Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution, a massive and maddening campaign to reassert control over the government that ushered in a decade of anarchy. Mao raised an army of millions of students, exhorting them to upend the traditional order and, like Lei Feng, to “serve the people.” Chen was born in 1968 in a rural county in the eastern province of Jiangsu; in 1972, his brother and sister died of hunger, a fact he sometimes mentions in interviews. Chen himself “almost starved to death in a time of famine,” reads promotional materials for the 2011 hagiographic book China’s Top Philanthropist Chen Guangbiao.

He sold popsicles in high school and a contraption he claimed cured diseases after college, but it wasn’t until he discovered the recycling business in the mid-1990s that he found success. In the years since, he has accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars of wealth, building up a successful empire and donating, by his own estimate, tens of millions of dollars. In his office in Nanjing, he displays “4,000 honorable certificates, 20,000 hada (silk scarves presented by Tibetans to respected people), and 3,000 banners,” according to the Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post.

Chen burst into fame by personally leading 120 workers to help rescue victims of the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed roughly 70,000 people. “I carried more than 200 bodies,” he told a reporter from the U.S. business magazine Fast Company.

“I was covered in blood. When I couldn’t cradle them, I hauled them. When I couldn’t haul them, I lifted them. To this day, I still have a back problem from it.”

I first met Chen in February 2011, in the midst of the U.S. financial crisis, while I was a Beijing-based correspondent for Newsweek. Chen was holding court at an expensive and ostentatious restaurant in Beijing with a group of Taiwanese and Chinese journalists. He had just returned from a high-profile trip to Taiwan, where he held a “donation ceremony” and handed out red envelopes stuffed with cash. But altruism alone isn’t quite Chen’s bag: “I think helping poor people is an experience worthy of promotion,” he told me. Dreams of a political legacy also flitted through his mind. “I would donate all of my money” to build a bridge from the mainland to the small Taiwanese island of Jingmen, he said. But he stressed that he’s not representing the Chinese Communist Party. “I don’t hook myself up to the government,” said Chen.

Inspired by the philanthropist billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, Chen pledged to donate all of his money after he dies. But while he’s alive, he thrills at the idea of personally distributing it himself.

Isaac Stone Fish is an associate editor at Foreign Policy and formerly a Beijing correspondent for Newsweek.

© 2014, Foreign Policy