China’s attempts at soft power have been unsuccessful in the extreme, but away from the halls of Chinese government (albeit not too far), there are Chinese people changing the world on their very own. The rise of the Chinese individual in the past few decades has taken the world by storm, and we decided to profile six influential people—masters of science, business, and the environment—that are changing the way the world views China.
CHEN GUANGBIAO 陈光标: CHINA’S CLOWN PRINCE
Name: Chen Guangbiao
Affiliations: China Zhi Gong Party, Jiangsu Huangpu Renewable Resources
Known for: Recycling construction materials, flamboyant philanthropy, earthquake rescue, interest in buying American newspapers
Education: MBA, Nanjing University; BA in Medicine, Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine
- Founding China’s largest construction waste company
Chen Guangbiao is one of the world’s great eccentric multimillionaires. In fact, he is probably the world’s great eccentric multimillionaire— his philanthropic efforts stealing headlines everywhere from Ningbo to New York. Indeed The Washington Post dubbed him “the most interesting man in China”. His business card alone lists him as the, wait for it: “Most Influential Person of China”, “Most Charismatic Philanthropist in China”, “China Moral Leader”, “Most Well-Known Beloved Chinese Role Model”, and more.
He made his fortune (all 750 million USD of it, according to the Associated Press) off the back of China’s building boom by founding Jiangsu Huangpu Renewable Resources, a company that recycles construction waste. Previously, he made a tidy sum by patenting and selling a somewhat questionable medical product, the “New Century Family CT Scan”, a device which has been described as a “low-radiation ear acupuncture point illness probing and curing apparatus”. Chen claims the device can determine the sex of an unborn child; however, one of Chen’s assistants has since revealed that only Chen was actually able to use the machine.
It is not just his wealth that has found him fame, but rather a bizarre mix of very public philanthropy, laudable humanitarian acts, and a litany of mind-boggling publicity stunts. He first captured the public imagination during the tragic Sichuan earthquake in 2008—providing extensive equipment and aid to help with the rescue and actually physically rescuing bodies from the rubble. It was widely reported that he helped up to 200 people to safety and personally saved 11 lives.
In early 2014, Chen announced that he was forming a group of investors to negotiate the purchase of The New York Times, which caused the paper’s share price to rise 4.5 percent. The owners speedily said it was not for sale, and Chen was widely ridiculed for even attempting to try. Not that that slowed him down; weeks later he proclaimed that he would simply buy The Wall Street Journal instead, raising eyebrows by stating that he was a good fit to for the newspaper because, as he put it: “I am good at working with Jews.” Other stunts have included handing out cans of free “fresh air” in a bid to bring attention to Beijing’s poor air quality. Chen can also often be found peppering his numerous press conferences with spur of the moment sing-a-longs to various songs, his favorites being the self-penned “My Chinese Dream”, and Michael Jackson’s “We are the World”.
The patriotic Chen is often portrayed as bit of a clown, but his commitment to philanthropy is strong. In 2010 he attended a charity dinner with Warren Buffet and Bill Gates where he pledged to donate his entire fortune to charity. After the meal he said China needed, “at least ten more Chen Guangbiaos, and that is enough…So far, no other billionaire has reached my level of charitability.” However, his style of his giving does not always win him fans; one senior aid-worker described it as “violent philanthropy”, as he has a tendency to create as much publicity as possible, often standing for photo opportunities in front of vast walls of cash.
Clown or not, one thing that Chen certainly is, is entertaining, not to mention seemingly dedicated to good works. The naysayers will, of course, say that his giving is over-hyped, the mere tip of the iceberg to his wealth and that he only does so for fame and to massage a considerable ego. Well, this might be true, but there are certainly many worse things in the world than attention-seeking philanthropists – CARLOS OTTERY
YUAN LONGPING 袁隆平: FAMINE FIGHTER
Name: Yuan Longping
Affiliations: China National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Center
Known for: Breeding high-yield hybrid rice to end hunger worldwide
Education: Agriculture, Southwest College of Agriculture (Now Southwest University in Chongqing)
- Worked as chief consultant of Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
- Led hybrid rice research, developing new varieties to improve output
- Trained agriculture personnel from across the world
In October, 84-year-old Yuan Longping received a group of experts in his rice field. With his thin build, plain blue-striped shirt, wrinkled face darkened by sun, and his Hunan dialect, Yuan could easily be mistaken for an ordinary rice farmer. He is, in fact, one of China’s most accomplished scientists. A road, a high-tech development zone, a college, a publicly-traded company worth 105 million RMB, and even an asteroid all bear his name.
In Yuan’s Super Hybrid Rice Base in Hongxing Village, Hunan Province, experts found that the field is able to yield a record-breaking 15.4 tons per hectare. At his age, Yuan has survived and experienced all the major turmoil of China’s recent history, but it was the Great Chinese Famine from 1959 to 1961 that led him to his lifetime devotion to feed the world. It’s known that by cross breeding varieties of a crop, the resulting hybrid may grow faster, resist stress better, and yield more than its predecessors. But, rice is a self-pollinating plant which led to the longstanding assumption that a hybrid variety was simply not possible. However, in the 1960s and 1970s, Yuan and his team achieved the impossible: the discovery and cultivation of the sterility trait in rice, thus allowing cross-pollination.
The first hybrid rice varieties were released in China in 1974, and now hybrid rice crops make up more than half of all of the rice produced in the country, all producing yields unimaginable in previous years. According to the International Rice Research Institute, China’s rice production averaged around 6.6 tons per hectare in 2009, well above the world average of 4.2 tons. Within three decades, China transformed from a starving nation to a nation with reliable food security.
But, Yuan’s contribution didn’t stop at China. His research has helped to provide a robust food source in high famine risk areas. Starting in 1991, Yuan worked with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization as its chief consultant to share his expertise with world’s major rice-producing countries. Over the years, the institute, under his direction, trained over 500 researchers and technicians from over 30 countries. By 2011, hybrid rice was also grown by farmers in Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Brazil, the United States, and the Philippines.
Revered as the “Father of Hybrid Rice”, Yuan is a national hero, with innumerable awards and honors and countless government titles. But, he still lives in a two-floor brick house in a village with his family, spending most of his time in the field. He smokes a lot, even jokingly claiming that his scientific findings dictate that it prevents SARS and Alzheimer’s. He also loves a good mahjong game with his students and journalists who come for an interview. This humble man has done so much to relieve the scourge of world hunger, and should be—quite apart from the antics of Chen Guangbiao or the social Darwinism of Jack Ma—a role model for future generations of world changers. – LIU JUE (刘珏)
Jack Ma and Hu Shuli are changing internet trading and journalism. Also check out Wu Changhua, China’s Climate Changer, and Wang Jianlin, the Monopoly Man.