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Chen Guangbiao, China's controversial philanthropist

By Zoe Li, CNN
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 0334 GMT (1134 HKT)
Chen Guangbiao has a penchant for sensational philanthropic stunts, like building walls of cash to give away to the needy. Chen Guangbiao has a penchant for sensational philanthropic stunts, like building walls of cash to give away to the needy.
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China's eccentric millionaire philanthropist
China's eccentric millionaire philanthropist
China's eccentric millionaire philanthropist
China's eccentric millionaire philanthropist
China's eccentric millionaire philanthropist
China's eccentric millionaire philanthropist
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "I regret nothing. I am not afraid of what people say about me," says controversial philanthropist Chen Guangbiao
  • The recycling tycoon regularly donates millions through showy charity actions
  • His ostentatious ways attracts criticism and ridicule -- he's been called a fraud, a clown, and a political pawn

Hong Kong (CNN) -- Chen Guangbiao wants rich people in China to give more to charity and he'll do anything to get their attention.

That includes stacking piles of cash to form a wall for a photo op or dancing on the rooftops of brand new cars that he bought for a donation.

Chen's latest stunt involved buying lunch for underprivileged people in New York City and giving each person a cash gift. The free lunch took place on June 25 at Loeb Boathouse in Central Park.

"I have visited the U.S. every month since last November, I see many homeless people, poor people on the streets, searching for food in the garbage bins," Chen said when asked why he was going all the way to the U.S. to carry out his philanthropy.

For polluted Beijing, canned air

Calling from his Shanghai office earlier this week, Chen spoke in an even, calm tone, without a hint of the goofball persona that he displays during his media events.

Chen publicized the mass lunch with full-page ads in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, asking interested homeless people to sign up for the meal by email.

When we spoke to the millionaire, he said more than 5,000 people had signed up for the June 25 lunch. He was working with several U.S. charities to decide on the final guest list. One of them, the New York City Rescue Mission, told CNN last week that the $300 cash gift is a prize for completing one of their training or substance abuse programs.

Publicity with a purpose

Mission spokeswoman Michelle Tolson dismissed the idea that the event is a publicity stunt for Chen, saying they had vetted him. "It's not something we wanted to get into lightly," she said, citing her organization's 142-year history. 

But for Chen, publicity is crucial. Handing out cash and buying lunches is not the long-term goal. The eccentric millionaire says he hopes to influence the rest of the world's rich and powerful to give more through his flashy charity antics, even though it makes him a target for ridicule.

"My wealth is very limited. I need to influence other people to give," says Chen, adding that those full-page ads in U.S. newspapers were written in both English and Chinese so that other well-heeled Chinese would get the message.

The tycoon founded Jiangsu Huangpu Recycling Resources, an unlisted company that recycles construction material and domestic waste, but says that he "could not even make it onto China's top 10,000 rich list." Hurun has him at number 372 on their 2013 rich list, while Forbes reports Chen's fortune is worth the equivalent of $720 million (RMB4.5 billion ).

Chen Guangbiao\'s namecard.
Chen Guangbiao's namecard.

'Talk is cheap'

Chen likes to tell the story of how his mother's selflessness inspired him. Growing up in a poor rural household, two of Chen's siblings starved to death. Despite their poverty, his mother found ways to give to others.

"She would carry my little brother at her side, he would be crying, but she would share her milk with other people's babies," says Chen.

The self-made man said he did many odd jobs as a school kid, hauling trash, selling water and snacks, whatever he could to bring in extra cash.

A graduate in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), Chen says he invented an electronic device that detects illnesses in the body using TCM theories. The contraption made him his first fortune in the 1990s before he turned to the recycling industry.

He made his mark nationally as a philanthropist when he appeared on the scene of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. Changing his suit and tie for army fatigues, the bespectacled businessman pulled bodies out from the rubble and donated more than RMB 100 million (US$16 million).

"I like to get my hands dirty. Talk is cheap," he says. Chen has since traveled to the epicenter of other major natural disasters in China to do relief work -- and provide the media with great photo ops.

I regret nothing. I am not afraid of what people say about me. I will keep on giving positive energy.
Chen Guangbiao

In the spotlight

Despite his record, a lot of people can't take Chen seriously as a philanthropist. His critics include Jeremy Goldkorn, director of Chinese media research firm Danwei, who calls the millionaire "a clown whose so-called philanthropy appears to consist entirely of self-promotional stunts."

Netizens ridicule Chen for his love of the media spotlight; some accuse him of being a fraud and say that his TCM diagnostic machine invented in the 1990s is a scam.

Chen doesn't do himself any favors when he includes on his English namecard an absurdly long string of self-aggrandizing titles, including "Most Charismatic Philanthropist of China," or when he widely publicizes his interest in buying the New York Times, only to have the Times deny any such possibility.

The millionaire also seems to actively court political controversy. In 2011, he traveled to Taiwan -- considered a rogue state by Beijing -- to hand out more than $200,000 in cash to the disadvantaged, only to have local politicians hesitate to receive him, suspecting the trip may be a soft political move orchestrated by Chinese government.

Chinese American media such as the Epoch Times and New Tang Dynasty TV have investigated Chen's ties to the Communist Party, suspecting him of unknowingly becoming a political pawn for certain factions of the party. Chinese-language media have also accused Chen of not fulfilling his million-dollar pledges -- allegations Chen has denied.

Chen is a staunch patriot -- he is known for punctuating press conferences with solo renditions of patriotic songs, some using self-penned lyrics. He also took out an ad in the New York Times in 2012 proclaiming the disputed Diaoyu Islands are Chinese territory, not Japanese.

But the recycling tycoon denies any connection with Chinese authorities and insists his record is clean. "Starting my business has been very hard work. I have received no help from any officials at all. I still find it very difficult to get my business deals because I refuse to take or give bribes, I refuse to become corrupt," he says.

Perhaps Chen's most controversial philanthropic venture was his pledge in early 2014 to fund plastic surgery for a mother and her daughter who reportedly survived self-immolation. The pair were allegedly part of a group of Falun Gong practitioners who are believed to have set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square in 2001. They survived the incident but were badly disfigured.

Chen's move to bankroll their surgery was met with outrage from Falun Gong supporters who say that the incident was staged by the Chinese government and that the organization would never preach self harm or suicide.

When he dies, Chen plans to donate his entire fortune not to his family, but to charity -- a pledge he says he was inspired to make after meeting Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in 2010.

Although his critics accuse Chen of never giving money to his relatives anyway.

"My younger brother runs a guesthouse and my sister is a janitor. I have not given them money because they earn their own money. I pay for their children's school fees," says Chen.

Despite the criticism, Chen has not been discouraged. "I regret nothing," he says. "I am not afraid of what people say about me. I have not done anything that harms anyone. I think society needs diverse innovation. I will keep on giving positive energy through my creative solutions for problems."

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