NEW YORK—The roughly 300 homeless residents of New York City that were crowded into the Loeb Boathouse in Central Park on Wednesday were not the restaurant’s usual clientele, where the three course lunch they were served costs about $175 per person. And as the juicy filet of beef with horseradish, whipped potatoes, and red wine sauce was brought out, two disfigured Chinese women were called onto the stage—to slander a Chinese spiritual practice.
Confusion reigned at this point in the proceedings: Why, in the first place, had the Chinese businessman Chen Guangbiao taken out a full page advertisement in the New York Times, inviting “1,000 homeless residents” to the Boathouse on Wednesday, with the promise that they would receive $300 cash? Why did he dress several dozen local Chinese residents in quasi military attire, and have them march into the restaurant, to stand around while he played a 1950s communist propaganda song?
And why, just why, did he turn what was already a bewildering, carnivalesque event into an opportunity to spread propaganda about Falun Gong?
Nor was this Chen Guangbiao’s first rodeo: in January he arranged a similar publicity stunt in New York, when he announced that he would be paying for the medical treatment of Chen Guo, one of the women, for wounds she said came from a self-immolation in 2001.
In that instance, his stated reason for coming to New York was in order to make a bid to buy the New York Times. Once he arrived, he held the anti-Falun Gong event. This time, mention of Falun Gong was entirely absent from all publicity—until the very end of the mealtime entertainment. Predictably, local New York news reporters who came to cover a story about an “eccentric Chinese tycoon” buying lavish lunches and handing out cash to homeless people were entirely baffled.
First, he sung songs—poorly. Then he had the gaggle of “volunteers” crowd into the back of the restaurant and lipsynch. He first identified Chen Guo, the disfigured Chinese woman whose alleged medical treatment at the New York Presbyterian Hospital he paid for, as “Lady Charity.”
As a 1950s propaganda song was played, she unsettlingly waved her amputated hands back and forth in the style of a symphony conductor. Then Chen Guangbiao incorporated her into a “magic” trick, in which he brought out a plastic rose whose red petals opened and closed, apparently on command. Those not engaged in their beef filet could be seen shaking their heads at what they were witnessing.
When that act was over, the disfigured Chen Guo read her lines in front of the microphones, attacking Falun Gong and thanking Chen Guangbiao for his generosity and the hospital for its care. It is difficult to independently verify details about the women, their histories, and the alleged medical treatment. At the event on Wednesday, the two women did not acknowledge repeated attempts by a reporter to engage them in dialogue. David Isacksen, a bodyguard with MSA Security, the company hired (they would not say by whom) to police the event, warned a reporter not to speak to them. The New York Presbyterian hospital could not answer immediately for comment. Chen Guangbiao’s assistant, who helped arrange the event at the Boathouse, but would not provide her name to a reporter, said that she did not know beforehand that Chen had planned to bring out the alleged burn victims.
This spectacle of two disfigured Chinese women thanking Chen Guangbiao for his kindness, while slandering Falun Gong in the same terms used by Chinese propaganda authorities, was the strangest part of the day, the most unexpected for many attendees, and the part requiring the most context.
Falun Gong is a traditional Chinese meditation and spiritual practice that has been persecuted in China for 15 years. Throughout the 1990s it was practiced freely and even supported by the communist authorities, who saw it as a way to save money on health care expenses. The Sports Commission said that 70 million people were practicing Falun Gong by 1998.
In July 1999, the Communist Party launched a violent and sweeping campaign of persecution and propaganda, and Falun Gong became Public Enemy Number One. As in past Chinese communist political campaigns, adherents of Falun Gong were singled out for what is known as “political struggle,” like landlords, capitalists, and “rightists” were in years past.
Except that the mobilization against Falun Gong, rooted as it is in China’s spiritual and moral traditions, didn’t go very well at first. According to contemporaneous accounts, the public did not generally support the campaign. Until January 23, 2001. China’s state-run media was then inundated with reports that five practitioners of Falun Gong had set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square, the heart of Beijing, not as an act of protest against persecution, but because such an act would cause them to “enter heaven.”
Falun Gong forbids suicide, and holes in the official story were glaring. When a Washington Post reporter visited the hometown of one of the women involved, she was found to work as an escort, and no one had seen her practice Falun Gong.
But that hardly mattered in China, where the regime tightly controlled the media, and the public was told that a renewed struggle against Falun Gong was needed. Instances of torture and death of Falun Gong practitioners in custody shot up, according to the Washington Post.
For over a decade, the individuals involved in the immolation disappeared from media reports, until Chen Guangbiao brought two of them to the public (if they are indeed even the same people, a fact that is difficult to confirm) at the January event.
The timing of this has been unusual, given political dynamics in China. The campaign against Falun Gong is heavily associated with former regime leader Jiang Zemin, who launched the persecution and made it his pet project. Jiang left all official posts in 2004, and many of his allies have since been purged from their positions.
These include Li Dongsheng, who, before he was purged, headed the agency responsible for persecuting Falun Gong. Earlier in his career, Li ran the “Focus Talk” program on China Central Television, the official broadcaster, which he used to air anti-Falun Gong propaganda that featured the alleged immolation.
Much of this backstory—Chinese spiritual practices, political persecution, conspiracies, and blood libel—seemed lost on the attendees. Many of the subsequent media reports simply omitted mention of Falun Gong.
“I don’t see an exact connection,” ventured Ron Lorenz, 32, a client of the New York City Rescue Mission, who attended the lunch based on the promise that $300 cash was in the offing.
“I feel like we were used as puppets,” muttered his friend, Andrew Vega, 34, also a client of the Rescue Mission, as he poked at his desert, a crème fraîche with berries in pastry. When it was brought to the attention of Lorenz and Vega that in his Chinese pronouncements, Chen repeatedly addressed them as “homeless people,” or “homeless friends”–(liulanhan or liulanghan pengyoumen) words not translated into English–they both shook their heads with a note of distaste. Others stood up to yell their anger at Chen once it became clear, at the end of the event, that there was no cash being handed out.
Chen sought to calm the attendees, promising to personally go to the Mission himself, in Chinatown, and hand out cash. This appeared to exasperate Michelle Tolson, the public relations director from the Mission, who said it could cause chaos in the streets once the word got out, and that he had specifically agreed not to pull such a stunt. In the end, Chen did not go to the Mission, and no cash was handed out, according to Lorenz. (In China, Chen has a reputation for welching on promised donations.)
Chen instead says he will pay the Mission $90,000 for their operations. This would be added to the roughly $175,000 cost of running the New York Times advertisement, according to the New York Post, plus around $40,000 to book the restaurant, according to rough calculations provided by Robin Newland, a member of the Local 6 Union and a waitress at the Boathouse, who has worked in high dining in New York for a number of years. Security, transportation, and accommodation could add tens of thousands more.
Lorenz said that despite the expensive lunch, many of the homeless people that were the supposed beneficiaries of Chen’s largesse ended up with a bitter taste in their mouths. “The outrage is rampant down here,” he said, standing outside the Mission. “There are still people here screaming, yelling, waiting around by the door.”
He said that the stories from the burn victims suddenly seemed more suspicious. “I believe they were not only used as propaganda, but were probably paid to speak the words they did,” he said. “I believe that money and political propaganda were abused.”