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China’s self-proclaimed ‘most charismatic philanthropist’ accused of falsifying millions in donations

Chinese billionaire and philanthropist Chen Guangbiao, center, hands out cans of fresh air on a day of heavy air pollution at a financial district in Beijing in 2013.
(Associated Press)

Chen Guangbiao’s business card says it all.

“Most Influential Person of China,” says the Chinese chief executive’s card, photos of which went viral in 2014. That’s followed by 10 other honorifics, including “China Moral Leader” and “Most Well-known and Beloved Chinese Role Model.”

Now, he might have to add one to the list: China’s disgrace du jour.

Chen, 48, a recycling magnate and the self-proclaimed “most charismatic philanthropist of China,” has long had a penchant for zany theatrics. He has hawked “canned air” as a protest against air pollution, handed wads of cash to impoverished people in Taiwan and treated more than 200 homeless Americans to an upscale lunch in New York City. (The lunch ended in a mini-riot, after cash handouts he had promised never materialized.) In 2014, he attempted to acquire the New York Times for $1 billion in a bid to bolster China’s soft power abroad.

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Last week, Caixin, a Chinese investigative news outlet, published an expose saying that Chen falsified and exaggerated donations, damaging his public image and underscoring rapid shifts in China’s culture of philanthropy. Charitable giving in China is beginning to mature, analysts say — and Chen, with his attention-seeking stunts, has been left out of the emerging order.

Chen has “driven the subject [of philanthropy in China] forward,” said Rupert Hoogewerf, publisher of the Hurun Report, a respected index that tracks China’s high-net-worth individuals. “But that’s up until that point in New York, when he became a bit of a disaster. People felt his way of making donations was too spectacular to be true, that he was too much of a showoff, kind of cringe-worthy in some ways.”

Now, “there’s a lot of creativity going on in philanthropy” in China, he continued. “Building a wall of money and showing it off, that just embarrasses people now, because there are people doing some really serious stuff.”

Chen claimed in a 2012 autobiography that he donated more than $300 million between 1998 and 2012. But Caixin, citing an anonymous source, claimed that he donated as little as 10% of that. Chen has boasted of establishing 52 schools through donations to the China Youth Development Foundation, a Chinese nongovernmental organization. Caixin, citing the organization, found that he funded none. Chen also falsified official seals, a major crime in China, to create proof of his donations, the magazine reported.

I don’t think he is China’s top charity icon — instead, he’s the country’s biggest con man.

Xu Yongguang, chair of the Narada Foundation

“I don’t think he is China’s top charity icon — instead, he’s the country’s biggest con man,” Xu Yongguang, chair of the Narada Foundation, a private organization that donates to disaster relief and education programs, told Caixin. Chen has “morally hijacked society,” he continued.

Chen rejected the allegations at a news conference Friday. Days earlier, he had threatened to sue Caixin for defamation, asking for about $150,000 in damages. A court in Nanjing has accepted the lawsuit.

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“The reports all relied on hearsay, viciously defaming me and calling white black, causing an extremely negative effect on Huangpu Renewable Resources Utilization Group and Mr. Chen Guangbiao,” he said, according to a live broadcast of the conference on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. “There are lots of fake elements in the reports.”

He then refused to take any questions from journalists in the crowd. Chen could not be reached during business hours Monday; calls to a number on his company’s website led to a disconnected line.

China is notoriously stingy about charitable giving, despite the country’s profusion of the ultra-rich — in 2012, its total charitable donations equaled just 4% of America’s. But charity is growing more popular. Beijing passed its first charity law this spring, and private companies such as Alibaba and Tencent have donated billions of dollars toward healthcare, education and the environment.

Chen was born into a poor family in the eastern province of Jiangsu and studied traditional Chinese medicine at university. In 2003, he founded the Jiangsu Huangpu Renewable Resources Utilization Group, a recycling company, and amassed a fortune.

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Chen shot to fame while helping with recovery efforts after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed about 70,000 people. The People’s Daily newspaper — a Communist Party mouthpiece — reported that Chen saved 128 lives and donated about $1.2 million, 2,300 tents, 23,000 radios and 1,000 television sets.

That May, then-Premier Wen Jiabao clasped Chen’s hands and told him: “You are an entrepreneur with conscience; you truly care for the earthquake-stricken area.”

Chen subsequently built a reputation as the king of the philanthropic publicity stunt. In 2012, he donned a lime-green suit and gave out dozens of cars to replace those that were damaged in an anti-Japanese protest. Last year, he sat in a garbage bin full of freezing water for 30 minutes as part of the “Ice Bucket Challenge,” a viral phenomenon intended to raise money for research into amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.

Many of his stunts sparked controversy. Critics accused him of making $325 million off his relief efforts in Sichuan by recycling steel found in the rubble. And he later acknowledged that his ice bucket challenge was a hoax — the water, he said, was about the temperature of a “hotel swimming pool.”

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Yingzhi Yang in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report

jonathan.kaiman@latimes.com


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