Chen Guangbiao, China’s Charity Champion

Recycling tycoon Chen Guangbiao says he wants to be “the top philanthropist in the world.” Inside his effort to transform charity in China — and make a name for himself.

Chen Guangbiao, China’s Charity Champion
Photographs by Darren Soh

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 all of 2009, individuals, families, and companies in the People’s Republic of China gave a total of $5 billion to charity. For comparison, consider that the single largest charitable organization in the U.S., the United Way, takes in roughly $4 billion a year — and $300 billion is donated to American charities annually. China has 2,083 legally recognized charitable organizations; the United States has 920,434.


It was not always this way. Back in the era of the emperors, there were charitable organizations for virtually every social service: burial of the dead, care of orphans, provision of food for the hungry. The wealthiest in every community — typically, the merchants — were expected to give food, medicine, clothing, and even cash to those in need. According to Caroline Reeves, a historian at Emmanuel College in Boston, that began to change with the arrival of American missionaries in the late 19th century. “One of the reasons they gave for being there was to help the poor Chinese,” she says. “Because of that need to justify their existence in China, they downplayed China’s own charity. That attitude, that denial of reality, is still very strong today.”

After the Communist revolution in 1949, the government played this hand deftly. “Philanthropy was seen as a tool for the exploitative classes to defraud the public,” says Deng Guosheng, director of Tsinghua University’s Center for Innovation and Social Management. Adds Reeves: “If you had money to give, that meant you were bourgeois. And if you had a reason to give, that would mean the state wasn’t doing its job and that Mao wasn’t doing his job.”

There were some jobs that the government did not wish to do, so the handful of charities that were not shut down had their agendas rewritten. For instance, the Chinese Red Cross, which had been started by a group of business leaders during the Russo-Japanese War and became a state organ after the revolution, was directed to find wives for veterans of the Korean War.

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.

“Like Edison, I invented it,” Chen boasts. “If you are pregnant, it can tell whether you’re going to have a boy or a girl. The electrical resistance of the female fetus is less than that of the male.” He patented the device in 1994, boom times in China for devices such as shoes that claim to make the wearer grow taller and headbands that promise to increase the intelligence of high-school students. He says the machine made him his first fortune. A member of his staff quietly tells me later: “Chen’s the only one who can use it.”

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.

I first met Chen in Sichuan a few days after the May 2008 earthquake. The region was still being rattled by numerous aftershocks, and the authorities had just announced that a reservoir could shortly flood Beichuan, a town of 10,000 corpses. That afternoon, I was trotting uphill, along with thousands of rescue workers, earthquake tourists, and journalists, when Chen pulled up in a chauffeured SUV and swung the passenger door open. “Hop in!” he said.

We rode together for a few minutes, chatting about how he had come to rescue people. (“He’s a big deal!” his aide interjected.) Then he gave me his business card, jumped out of the SUV, and began directing traffic in his fatigues and Red Cross armband.

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.

Perhaps the more appropriate parallel would be Lei Feng, a soldier in the People’s Liberation Army, who died in 1962 and later became the ubiquitous figurehead of a propaganda campaign. Unknown in his lifetime and certainly too poor to afford so much film, Lei somehow was the subject of hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs depicting his never-ending selflessness and service to the Chinese Communist cause. The government published his diary — hundreds of pages of self-effacing, nation-loving, Mao-honoring prose that became mandatory reading. Newspapers heralded his patriotic example. March 5th was declared Learn from Lei Feng Day. Never mind that most scholars doubt the veracity of nearly all of Lei Feng’s story — most Chinese still see him as their own Mother Teresa, in PLA fatigues. Chen says, “I want to be remembered as Lei Feng.”

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.


While he’s cagey about how much he pays to get into the papers, Chen does not deny that his generosity extends to members of the media. During a series of interviews with him, he offered me — and I politely declined — a set of skin-whitening creams, antiaging facial lotion made from sheep’s placenta, $2,000 in cash, a massage, and a pair of gold and silver bunnies to usher in the Year of the Rabbit.

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.”

Before Chen arrived in Taiwan on January 26th, almost nobody on the island knew who he was. But his advance team had done a stellar job of prepping the local media, helped by his promise to give away $17 million in four days. Chen began by giving $2,400 in cash to an old lady he met on a Taipei street, in full sight of a band of photographers and reporters. And so, three days later in Hualien, an impoverished coastal county in eastern Taiwan, he was greeted by a horde of media and a dozen dancers and drummers.

Fu Kun-chi, the local magistrate, had known Chen was coming. Other politicians had declined Chen’s offer to come and spread his wealth, despite the suffering in the aftermath of Typhoon Morakot. Fu was concerned about the political implications. Was Chen a tool being used by Beijing to promote reunification with the mainland? He was obviously loyal to Beijing, had been shunned by the federal authorities in Taipei, and had offered to build a bridge connecting Taiwan to the mainland. But in the end, the promise of $690,000 to go directly to locals gave Fu 690,000 reasons to welcome Chen. (His initial instincts may have been right — the day after Chen returned to Beijing, the People’s Daily ran a story headlined: “How Chen Guangbiao Conquered Taiwan.”)


Chen’s advance team, with the help of the local Red Cross and social workers, had preselected the 3,000 people who would walk through the donation line to receive red envelopes stuffed with about $150 each. First came the most photo-friendly: those in wheelchairs and on crutches. When one man came along who did not have full use of his arms, Chen, smiling beatifically, gently tucked the red envelope and a copy of his biographical DVD under the recipient’s useless limb.

There is no question of the need: Many of the aid recipients’ stories would read like a modern-day Book of Job. Chen Yongru was widowed last year at the age of 27. At the time, she was pregnant with her fourth child, who has spent nearly all of his first year in the hospital with a severe case of infantile asthma. “Some people think this was punishment from heaven. Some people think it’s a good lesson — it teaches children independence,” she says, clutching her red envelope. “There are two sides to everything.”

Deng, the Tsinghua University social scientist, says that a direct handout “not only does not solve the problem of poverty. On the contrary, it can nurture passivity. I don’t think Chen Guangbiao knows who needs this money.”

But Li Lin, a real-estate developer from Inner Mongolia whom Chen invited to join him on the Taiwan trip, says that his example is precisely what modern China needs. “I first heard the term philanthropist 10 years ago. I read about it in the paper,” she says. “This is a breakthrough in Chinese culture.” Li grew up poor, in a farming family, too. “Now I’m also a philanthropist, like him. Our two hearts are one: We want to deliver all living creatures from hardship,” she says. Because of his example, she went to Qinghai Province following last year’s earthquake and “dug out three schoolchildren. I worship Chen Guangbiao.”

On the third day of his Taiwan visit, Chen and his entourage take a train from Taichung back to Taipei. During the journey, I find him sitting amid a pile of local newspapers, happily reading their coverage of him. He greets me cheerily and says that he has a question. A week earlier, he had gone to the U.S. to visit northeastern prep schools — Choate, Deerfield, Andover — with his 16-year-old son. “I would like to go to America to donate,” he tells me. “Would the government prevent me from giving money out there? Would people object? Would this be controversial? I think I’ll go for Christmas.”


Certainly, he would not get quite the response he does closer to home. One day, at another train station in Taiwan, we see a crazed fan being dragged away by security. The man spots Chen and yells out, “Chen Guangbiao is a living Buddha!” Photographers snap away. Chen beams, gives a little wave, and walks on.