On the flamboyant business card that has captivated the Internet, Chen Guangbiao, a Chinese businessman, calls himself “Most Prominent Philanthropist of China,” “China Moral Leader,” and “China Earthquake Rescue Hero.” The image is of a harmless, irresistible goofball with a penchant for self-promotion.
The goofball part may be accurate, but on Chen’s other claims the record tells a different story: in the times that journalists in China have actually tried to check out Chen’s donations, they have found that only a portion of the money or goods was actually donated. A retirement village that Chen said he was building sat empty. His claims to have organized vast earthquake rescue missions were debunked. And the reporters who dug into his background received death threats—photographs of corpses—in their email inboxes.
Chen arrived in the United States on Jan. 5, allegedly in a bid to buy The New York Times. He parlayed that into an odd press conference used to denigrate a Chinese spiritual practice. Now he says he intends to bid for the demolition contract for a bridge in San Francisco.
Chen also makes boastful claims back home in China. Journalists there, after digging into them, found a number of them to be unreliable.
At the start of 2011 Chen published a “charity report,” purporting to show his philanthropic activities in 2010: he said he had donated 330 million yuan ($54.5 million) over the course of the year.
Eager to kick the tires of this claim, Chinese journalists began investigating.
The New Express said in April 2011 that some of the donation recipients they contacted reported not receiving the full amount that Chen had publicly pledged. Other recipients did not exist.
For example, Chen said that he would donate 1,000 computers to the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Youth Development Foundation, based in far western China. But the group only received 500 in the end.
“I contacted Mr. Chen Guangbiao many times, hoping he would soon send the donation he promised, but the result was very disappointing,” said Fei Ligang, secretary of the foundation.
Fei was interviewed 10 months after the promise. “Chen doesn’t even answer my phone calls now,” he said.
China Business Journal published an article titled “The Mysterious Truth of Chen Guangbiao’s Philanthropy,” raising the question of whether some of Chen’s donations were actually “lies” meant to grab attention rather than genuine philanthropic efforts.
Southern Metropolitan Daily and Southern People Weekly, two liberal-leaning newspapers in Guangdong Province known for their investigative reporting, also looked at Chen’s record. They published detailed articles showing that Chen’s earthquake rescue efforts—said to involve bulldozers rustled up from a neighboring province—after the disastrous quake in Sichuan in 2008 could not have been on the scale he claimed. A lot of the donations he pledged also went unfulfilled, the papers said.
(Forced) ‘Demolition Expert’
One of Chen’s most striking claims on that now-famous business card was to call himself “China’s Foremost Environmental Preservation Demolition Expert.” To the people in his own hometown, of Tianganghu Village, Sihong County, Jiangsu Province, he is known more for his expertise in forced demolitions.
The village panicked in 2006, according to interviews with residents in the Southern Metropolis Daily, after Chen came back to town with promises to build a 20-acre farmers market.
“In order to build the market, a lot of people were forced to leave their homes and became homeless,” a villager told a reporter with the newspaper
The new market and commercial and residential buildings next to it all belong to Chen’s brother, Chen Jingbiao, the report said. It shows a photograph of an official housing agreement.
After the new market was built, the old farmers market was relocated to a downtown area. Chen wanted it demolished, the report said, but people there refused to move because “the business had always been very good at the old market, and the new market doesn’t have good business at all,” according to villagers quoted in the article.
Around 3 a.m. on Dec. 1 of the same year, 13 police cars and over 100 police surrounded the old market. More than 30 villagers were beaten by the police, 4 were sent to hospital, and 11 were detained for seven days, according to the report.
A 71-year-old villager hung himself in the old market after the demolition, because he lost the limited income he was making from his stall, according to villager Zou Ying, the elderly man’s daughter in-law.
“Information in our hometown is so restricted. Only after I left town did I find out that there are a lot of media even praising him [Chen Guangbiao],” said Wangzhi, a villager who became a petitioner, calling for redress for what had happened.
“We victims are so sad and pained to see and hear it,” he said. “It’s putting salt in our wound.”
Senior Center Turned Luxury House
Chen’s biggest donation project in 2007 was a senior center, also built in Chen’s hometown, which reportedly cost 26 million yuan ($4.3 million). Several provincial and local media described the center as “the biggest ever in Jiangsu” and “a first class senior center nationwide.”
However, the only people living in the senior center are Chen Guangbiao’s father, mother, and brother, according to the Southern Metropolis Daily.
“My son built this house,” Chen’s father, Chen Lisheng, told a reporter with pride, the report said. “This also belongs to our family,” Chen’s father said, pointing to the unoccupied high-rise commercial and residential building across the street, part of the same senior center.
Villagers told the Daily that they could never actually get into the senior center that was supposed to have been built for them.
Journalist Death Threats
After reports exposing Chen’s connections with officials and problematic donations were published, a number of Chinese journalists got life-threatening emails and comments full of cursing on their Weibo accounts, they said in interviews and in published articles. Weibo is a Twitter-like social media platform in China.
Ye Wentian, a reporter with China Business, posted on his Weibo account: “Because of the reports of Chen Guangbiao these couple of days, Fang Hui and Yan Yaobin at China Business, Chen Lei at Southern People Weekly, and I, have all received life-threatening emails, with a picture of a dead body.” Ye asked Chen to clarify whether he was behind it.
Zhao Hejuan, a well-known journalist, said she had received photographs of dead bodies in her email, along with threats. She said it was an “organized activity specifically against us,” and is related to disputes over reports about Chen Guangbiao.
Chen Lei, a reporter with Southern People Daily, wrote an investigative article about Chen titled “Behind the Halo of ‘No. 1 Philanthropist’ Chen Guangbiao: Personal Relationships, Philanthropy, and Business.” He was one of the reporters who received the photos of dead bodies in his emails.
Chen Lei told New Tang Dynasty television, “He has very good relationship with the Central Propaganda Department.” Fast Company reported that on Sept. 29 a government directive said simply: “All newspapers are forbidden from reporting negative news about Chen Guangbiao.” The Propaganda Department is the agency in the regime that sends out such notices.
Chen Lei said that after his article about Chen Guangbiao, he got a threatening phone call from him.
“I told the Central Propaganda Department about your story,” Chen Guangbiao said. “‘He dares to publish the story,’ those were the words from the Propaganda Department,” Chen said on the recorded line.
“The Guangdong Provincial Committee and the Propaganda Department are all very angry about it now,” he said. “Those are not my, Chen Guangbiao’s words. Those are words from the leaders.”