Chinese philanthropist Chen Guangbiao’s much-hyped posh luncheon for some of New York City’s homeless was overshadowed by an unmet promise to distribute $300 to each of the diners.
But Chen appeared unfazed, telling the New York Times that he's taking his philanthropy to Africa next. The self-made recycling tycoon worth an estimated $740 million has already become something of a household name in China, where he’s used his money—and his theatrics—to grab headlines and push his causes.
Chen, who grew up in a poor rural household and says two of his siblings died of hunger, has cultivated a reputation for the eccentric, and he's far from bashful about his exploits: His business card reads “Most Influential Person of China.” He's known for handing out cash to unsuspecting passersby, an antic he brought to the streets of New York City ahead of the luncheon.
He’s also used his theatrics to raise awareness about issues like pollution in China’s cities. Last year he distributed cans of fresh air with a variety of flavors—there were the options of “pristine Tibet” and “post-industrial Taiwan," among others. That followed his public smashing of his old, gas-guzzling Mercedes and his handout of thousands of bikes. In a call for China's wealth to join him in his philanthropy, Chen constructed a wall of cash for a photo-op.
He's also played in geopolitics. In 2012, he took out an ad in the New York Times declaring that the disputed Diaoyu Islands are Chinese and not Japanese territory. And then a year later, he announced that he planned to buy the New York Times, even as the owner said it wasn’t for sale. If not the Times, Chen said at the time, then he’d try for CNN or the Wall Street Journal.
“As long as they have some influence, I'm still willing to consider buying lesser media outlets,” he said at the time.