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Profile: Chen Guangbiao or “Mr Low Carbon”
Chen Guangbiao, the billionaire chairman of a Jiangsu-based recycling company, is a Chinese philanthropist who has a knack for getting his name in the news. Calling on the country’s wealthiest citizens to donate more of their wealth, he famously pledged to donate his entire fortune at his death. What’s more he is so green he has changed his name to reinforce the fact. Call him Chen Ditan or “Mr Low Carbon”.
Reported in the Straits Times 5 March 2011 and on www.danwei.org
When Chinese tycoon Chen Guangbiao said he was going green, he meant what he said.
In an Online chat organised by People Online Mr Chen said that his entire family had changed their names to demonstrate their commitment to environmental conservation, the portal danwei.org reported.
Chen Guangbiao, the billionaire chairman of a Jiangsu-based recycling company, is a philanthropist who has a knack for getting his name in the news. Calling on the country’s wealthiest citizens to donate more of their wealth, he famously pledged to donate his entire fortune at his death.
He will now be known as Chen Ditan (低碳, “low-carbon”), his wife is now Zhang Luse (绿色, “green”), and his daughters are Chen Huanbao (环保, “environmental protection”) and Chen Huanjing (环境, “environment”). Today he plans to distribute 500 reusable bags after biking to the opening of this year’s national legislative sessions, known as the lianghui.
Chen was born in Anhui, so Anhui’s Jianghuai Morning Post made him the focal point of is pre-lianghui reporting. Yesterday, the paper sent several reporters to follow him around. The highlight of the day’s activities was a banquet at which twelve of sixteen dishes were meatless. “‘Eating more vegetables is good for your body and is low-carbon and environmental,’ Chen Guangbiao said with a smile. ‘I studied medicine. I’m an expert on matters of nutrition’.”
Chen recently took a high-profile philanthropic tour of Taiwan during which he distributed cash to needy people as a show of gratitude for the assistance the island has shown to mainland China. Upon his return he called on other mainland tycoons to donate 5% of their wealth to construct a tunnel linking Taiwan to the mainland.
He told the paper that he intends to visit the United States later this year and distribute envelopes of cash to needy people on Wall Street.
Mr Chen made his fortune from recycling construction materials. “We need to bring social responsibility into our daily lives”, said the chairman of Jiang Huangpu Recycling Resources, who is one of China’s best known philanthropists. He has called on China’s wealthiest citizen’s to donate more of their wealth and he himself has famously pledged to donate his entire fortune upon his death.
Chen Guangbiao, the renowned Chinese philanthropist famous for his unorthodox, un-subtle approach to charity (he’s been known to make it rain on the less fortunate, hongbao style), has made headlines this week for taking his flashy show on the road to Japan. The only thing more overwhelming than the ostentatious nature of the visit (see flag-draped escort, flag-pinned suits, Mao-esque poses above) is how genuinely impressive it is.
From WSJ RealTimeReport:
Chen Guangbiao, a 42-year-old billionaire and chief executive of recycling company Jiangsu Huangpu Renewable Resources, headed to Japan Friday to personally donate rescue supplies and 13 million yen (US$158,820) to the country’s earthquake and tsunami victims, according to the Yangtze Evening News (in Chinese).
With four vans draped in Chinese national flags and wearing a suit decorated with Chinese flag stickers, Mr. Chen distributed food, water, sanitary goods, blankets and “good wishes from Chinese people” to shelters in the northeastern Japanese prefectures of Chiba, Ibaraki and Fukushima, the report said. He personally pulled three people from destroyed homes, the report said without elaborating further.
Reportedly, Chen purchased 30 tons of relief materials for the trip. He handed out a total of about 2 million yen, giving 1,000 yen and 100 yuan each to students gathering street-side with donation boxes. He stuffed his name card in as well for good measure.
Chen has inevitably faced some harsh criticism online, as anti-Japanese sentiments flare during the crisis (something dumb people are doing the world over) and many Chinese demand why he isn’t in Yunnan helping Yingjiang earthquake victims.
That may be why today Chen flew directly from Tokyo to Yunnan in order to assist with the earthquake recovery efforts, after being forced to leave Fukushima in the face of increasing radiation risks.
Here’s a guy who runs straight into the heart of disaster, whips out the fliff like mad for a few days, pulls some people from the rubble, has to evacuate due to radiation risk, then flies straight over to another disaster area. Say what you will about philanthropic showmanship, this guy’s got balls.
April Rabkin in the latest issue of FAST Company
It is a couple of weeks before Chinese New Year and Chen Guangbiao is sitting in the back of his SUV, barking orders out the window at his press secretary, a serious lady with a serious clipboard: “Beijing News, Beijing Evening News, Beijing Youth Daily …”Chen, a member of China’s new and fast-growing billionaire ranks, has just paid these newspapers to publish articles listing the charitable deeds he’s done over the course of the year.
“Make sure it’s all sourced to the People’s Daily,” Chen says, referring to the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece. Then he picks up his mobile phone and starts calling his friends. “Hey, did you see the papers today?” he says, chuckling. “Chen Guangbiao’s Report Card for the Year 2010!”
One highlight of his year: a September dinner with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. They had come to Beijing to encourage its wealthiest citizens to consider joining their Giving Pledge by promising to donate at least half of their fortunes to charity. Chen was the first to accept the dinner invitation and the first Chinese to sign on — and he has been the quickest to position himself at the vanguard of China’s fledgling philanthropic movement. “China’s newly wealthy don’t understand this concept yet. They think, Whatever money I have in my hand, earned by my own sweat and tears, has nothing to do with society, so I don’t owe them anything,” says Chen, 43, a farmer’s kid turned recycling tycoon who proclaims himself China’s “philanthropist-in-chief.” “But philanthropy here is developing very fast — with me as a model.”
Chen’s model of giving is the philanthropic equivalent of nouveau-riche ostentation: He’s fond of publicity stunts, cash giveaways, and media scrums. Every natural disaster — earthquake, typhoon, drought — looks like an opportunity to Chen, who, fittingly, made his fortune turning trash to cash. When conditions are quieter, he likes to stage public distributions of money and goods; in January, he handed out 13,000 parkas to people in three regions of China, but only after alerting the media.
Chen says there’s a clear purpose to his spotlight-hogging ways. China now has more billionaires (in U.S.-dollar terms) than any other country except for the U.S., and the increasing income disparity between rich and poor has been a growing concern both in the corridors of Communist officialdom and at the grassroots level. China’s rich “need Chen Guangbiao to lead them, to awaken them,” he says, so that they know how to behave properly. But his story is also a modern Chinese version of that classic tale of the poor boy who grew up to be very, very rich and wants everybody to know it. “I want Chinese history to remember me as Carnegie is remembered. I want Chinese people to remember me as they remember Marx and Lenin. I want people for the next century to think of me when they hear the word philanthropist,” he says. “Everyone knows that Bill Gates is the richest man in the world. But the position of top philanthropist is vacant. My goal is to work diligently to become the top philanthropist in the world.”
In 2004, laws regulating charitable organizations were finally liberalized, allowing private foundations to be established in China for the first time in more than 50 years. But fundraising from the public is still generally prohibited, even though, Deng says, the increasingly bourgeois nation has more and more “white-collar people who say, ‘I want to donate, I want to volunteer, but I don’t know where I can.’ ” They can give to organizations like the Red Cross, but that’s tantamount to paying additional taxes. “The lion’s share of funding goes into the revenue accounts of government agencies,” says Pei Bin, director of China partnership development at BSR. After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, there was an outpouring of billions of yuan in giving — which wound up mostly in the coffers of the same government agencies and officials responsible for the shoddy schools and buildings that collapsed on thousands of citizens.
Chen knows all about the lives of the poor in China because for most of his life, he was one of the have-nots. Born in 1968 during the Cultural Revolution, he grew up the son of a farmer in a Jiangsu Province county called Sihong, which has been famed since the 1730s for its fierce liquor. In the early 1970s, two of Chen’s siblings starved to death, and the young Chen expected to eat meat only once a year, during Chinese New Year. According to his father, Chen Lisheng, Chen started working for neighbors at an early age, herding cattle, cutting hay, and carrying water. As the younger Chen tells it, his giving began then too; he earned enough money during one summer of field labor to pay for not only his tuition but also those of a neighbor’s children. At age 15 or 16, the elder Chen recalls, his son “spent a summer selling popsicles. He wanted to use the money to pay for his dormitory fees, but when he ran into poor children who couldn’t afford popsicles, he would give them away for free.”
After finishing high school, Chen studied traditional Chinese medicine in Nanjing, Jiangsu’s capital, and in the 1990s, he invented a disease-detection device. Officially labeled a “low-radiation ear acupuncture point illness probing and curing apparatus,” the machine is basically a gutted computer monitor whose screen has been replaced by an anatomical diagram with an array of tiny lightbulbs. Two cords connect the machine to metal prongs, which the doctor places on the patient’s ears to detect interruptions in the body’s qi, the Chinese word for “life force” (and the salvation for many a Scrabble player with a q but no u). If any ailment is detected, the light on the diagram corresponding to that part of the body lights up and a siren shrieks.
In the late 1990s, Chen switched careers. He found, he says, “an invisible gold mine in the middle of the city”: construction sites. He realized that demolished buildings, with all that metal and concrete, could be valuable sources of salable materials. His company, Jiangsu Huangpu Recycling Resources, has become one of China’s premier dismantling and rubble-recycling firms. It has won prestigious contracts to take down some of the World Expo facilities in Shanghai and to demolish the Television Cultural Center tower in Beijing, which was set ablaze by Chinese New Year fireworks in 2009. “The profit margin is not large, but the amount of material is tremendous,” Chen says. He declines to offer details about his company, which is privately held; its clients; its revenues; or its profits — each further question is answered with a dismissive “yes, yes!”
According to the Hurun Rich List — the best source for wealth statistics in China, although it is based, at least in part, on self-reported numbers — 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 had him at No. 223, with an estimated net worth of $675 million (4.45 billion yuan). He has at least a dozen homes around China, including three in Nanjing, where his company is headquartered.
The Hurun Rich List also declared Chen the fourth-most-generous person in the nation. Last year, he pledged that upon his death, what remains of his wealth will go not to his two children, but to charity. He is, he says, the first of many Chinese “naked donors”: “We come into the world naked, and we leave the world naked. We don’t want to take money with us into the afterlife.” So far, Chen claims, he has recruited 100 Chinese millionaires and billionaires to join him on his list of naked donors.
The aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake still looms large in his mind. He had arrived a few days after the quake, along 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 also has plenty of other mementos. On his desk, he keeps two figurines of himself midrescue, limp bodies in his arms. The walls of his company headquarters are lined with life-size photos of him in Sichuan, as if they were the stations of his own cross: There’s Chen wiping the tears from a girl’s face. There’s Chen carrying a corpse out of the rubble. There’s Chen directing bulldozers. There’s Chen shaking hands with President Hu Jintao.
Chen insists on beginning every interview with a visit to the sixth floor of his headquarters, which he has turned into something of a personal shrine to his own philanthropy, filled with photos of him shaking hands: Hu again, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, politburo members, Gates and Buffett. During my visit, a delegation of university administrators were there to pay their respects, so he sat us down in a conference room, turned down the lights, and put on his self-produced biopic.
After the viewing, Chen says to one of his guests, “You see all these awards. What do they mean?”
“He’s not a man,” says a visitor from Beijing. “He’s supernatural.”
“He’s a superman,” adds another.
Such grandiose pronouncements rankle other Chinese billionaires, who see them as immodest — though none would criticize Chen on the record. But the Chinese authorities tolerate and even abet his self-promotion. On September 29, 2010, a government directive was issued that said simply: “All newspapers are forbidden from reporting negative news about Chen Guangbiao.” He frequently appears in the official Chinese media, giving away red envelopes of cash and distributing aid in disaster zones. He likes to build “walls of money,” ostentatiously piling up banknotes, and then have himself photographed in front of them. In January, he had one constructed in Beijing from 15 million yuan, or $2.28 million; the money came from a larger pot of more than $19 million in cash and goods donated by Chen and 90 other entrepreneurs for distribution to poor families in three regions of China.
Chen admits he enjoys the attention. “When I was young, I liked to be acknowledged in class by little gestures such as a small red star for doing something good. Now that I’m older, I still want to be acknowledged for good work.” But he sees a broader purpose to the promotion: “When you do a good deed, if you broadcast it to 10,000 people, you encourage 10,000 people to do the same.”
This is an edited version of an article appearing in the April 2011 issue of Fast Company