There are many wealthy business executives in China, but few of them are as adept in wielding the press as Chen Guangbiao. He has staged numerous publicity stunts in China—giving away sedans to owners of Japanese cars that were damaged in nationalist rioting, handing out cash to pedestrians in Taiwan, and giving away cans of clean air in Beijing. Now he has brought his merry band to New York City.
All these stunts allow Chen to call himself China’s Number One Philanthropist. The largesse is supported by his recycling and demolition businesses. The recycling venture that he founded in 2003 reached a valuation of 7 billion yuan ($1.16 billion) within two years.
His philanthropy has also helped his business, according to a widely-quoted anecdote in the Chinese press. It says that after Chen became the top charitable giver in China, the mayor of Nanjing gave him a pat on the shoulder and said: “Guangbiao, demolition work just started in Nanjing City. I give you this project. All Nanjing people trust you.” After that, Chen took charge of over 80 percent of demolition work in Nanjing.
How did Chen Guangbiao get so wealthy so fast? Scholars have for years observed that beginning in the early 2000s, Chinese Communist Party leaders began to link wealth to power—so that entrepreneurs in China would have a difficult time becoming rich if they did not pledge their loyalty to the Party. In turn, those who were loyal were rewarded.
“The practice of co-opting entrepreneurs has been an essential part of the CCP’s strategy for survival,” wrote Bruce Dickson, a scholar, in a widely-cited 2007 study. Dickson calls those who straddle the political and economic elite “red capitalists.”
A glance over Chen’s personal background and statements by his companies shows deep and extensive ties to the Chinese Communist Party.
Chen himself, for example, is a member of the Zhi Gong Party, one of the eight officially-condoned political parties (apart from the ruling Chinese Communist Party) in China. These parties are part of the regime’s “united front” strategy, which dates back to the Chinese civil war, and are meant to give the impression that China is a democratic country.
He spent $30,000 on a half page advertisement in The New York Times on Aug. 31, 2012, arguing that the Senkaku Islands—uninhabited land in the East China Sea disputed with Japan—are part of China’s territory.
One of his companies hosted a “red song party,” consisting of revolutionary communist singing, to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Party, in 2011.
On many pages on one of his company’s websites, Chen can be found expressing thanks and gratitude to the Chinese Communist Party and its policies of reform. Elsewhere, the company recycles notices from the Central Propaganda Department calling on Party members to study Marxism and the theory of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
In an interview a Chinese newspaper in 2010, Chen put it this way: “Carnegie paid back God, I pay back the Party!”