Chen Guangbiao: Philanthropy the Chinese Way

Tuesday, February 19, 2013 | By:

Never heard of him? Well, pretty much everyone else has due to the amount of publicity he generates with his philanthropy. He is a multimillionaire and entrepreneur who bills himself as the number 1 philanthropist in China, and he is not shy of making this clear to anyone with eyes and ears. His team always makes sure that whenever gives to charity, or just randoms on the street, there are plenty of photographers around and that the media has been alerted to his presence. Chen’s philanthropy is a bit of nouveau-riche ostentation: He is fond of publicity stunts, cash giveaways and media scrums. Every natural disaster in and around China, be it a drought, earthquake or flood, looks like an opportunity to him. When there is no disaster, he will just stage a giveaway. In January last year he gave away 13,000 parkas for free for the needy in three regions of China- but not until after he notified the media.

Chen says there is a clear purpose to his attention seeking: He wants to get more people involved in charity work, and the only way to do this is by hogging the spotlight. China now has the highest number of billionaires (in U.S. dollar terms) than any other country except the U.S.. China’s rich need someone to lead them and wake them up, he says, so that they know how to behave properly. Chen’s story is a classic rags-to-riches. Born in 1968 during the Cultural Revolution, he grew up as the son of a farmer in the Jiangsu Province called Sihong. His family was so poor that in the early 1970s two of his siblings starved to death. Chen only expected to eat meat once a year, during the Chinese New Year. He went to study traditional Chinese medicine in Nanjing, Jiangsu’s capital, and invented a disease-detecting device in the 1990s. Officially labeled as a “low radiation ear acupuncture point illness probing and curing apparatus” (Catchy!) it essentially is a gutted monitor that can detect the body’s qi (life force). If any ailment is detected, a light bulb on the diagram corresponding with that body part will come on and a siren shrieks. Chen boasts, “Like Edison, I invented it.” This machine made him his first fortune. In the late 1990s he switched careers, after he discovered a niche market, “an invisible gold mine in the middle of the city”: Construction sites.

According to the Hurun Rich List, Chen has amassed enough of a fortune to be, as of late 2010, the 406th wealthiest person in China. The most recent Forbes List of China’s Richest has him at number 223, with an estimated fortune of 4.45 billion yuan ($675 million). The Hurun Rich list also gave him the title of fourth most generous person in China. Two years ago he pledged that, upon his death, all his remaining money will go to charity and not his children. He claims he is the first of many Chinese “naked donors”. Chen claims he has recruited another 100 Chinese millionaires and billionaires to join him on the list of naked donors.

He doesn’t just donate money though, he gets hands on. After the Sichuan earthquake, he arrived with bulldozers, earth-moving equipment, supplies and demolition teams. “I carried more than 200 bodies”, he says. “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.” He’s got plenty of other mementos, too. In his headquarters, the entire 6th floor is devoted to pictures of him shaking hands- with the former Premier Wen Jiabao, members of the Politburo, Gates and Buffet. It serves as his shrine to philanthropy.

When Chen arrived in Taiwan last January, nobody really knew who he was, but his team did a stellar job of prepping the Island for his arrival and announced that he would be giving away $17 million in four days. He began by giving $2400 in cash to a random old woman on the street, of course in full sight of the bands of cameras and photographers. Chen’s team, alongside the Red Cross and social workers, selected 3000 people who would walk through the donation line to receive about $150 each. Deng, a social scientist from Tsinghua University, states that direct handouts do not solve the problem of poverty in areas. “On the contrary it can nurture passivity.”

During Beijing’s most recent episode of apocalyptic smog, he declared a philanthropic war on the pollution by selling fresh air in cans. The cans are filled with air from unindustrialized parts of China, such as Xinjiang, and they are labeled with a caricature of his own face and a slogan underneath it saying ‘Chen Guangbiao is a Good Man’. The cans sell for 5 yuan a pop and all proceeds go to impoverished areas around China. You can choose from different flavors  such as ‘Pristine Tibet’ or ‘Post-Industrial Taiwan’. Chen also took to the streets to give cans away for free to Beijing’s long suffering residents- and to further inflate his ego.

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4 Responses to Chen Guangbiao: Philanthropy the Chinese Way

  1. zainal abidin bin Abu talib says:

    Mr chen guangbiao .ni ker i kay wo chen.wo chen dek yau chen.May bank xxxx xxxx xxxx.RMB 1billion bank in my account.malaysia bank.

    • Keoni Everington (华武杰) says:

      Zainal, I can’t tell if you’re kidding or serious. In either case, you definitely need to take some Pinyin lessons!

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