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Chen Guangbiao: China's controversial philanthropist

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Media captionChen Guangbiao sings We are the World to the BBC's John Sudworth

Chen Guangbiao is a very rich man, worth by his own estimate, more than a billion dollars.

In modern day China though, there's nothing unique about that.

But Mr Chen owes his fame not to what he has, but to what he's given away.

The walls of his office are plastered with certificates that record his charitable donations over the years, many of them documenting multiple millions of Chinese yuan.

They suggest a decade or more of unbounded largesse, showered on schools, hospitals, orphanages and victims of floods, typhoons and earthquakes.

His motivation, he tells me, is simple.

"When I was eight years old, I was always starving. My brother and sister died from starvation," he says.

"One summer vacation I carried water to the town market to sell it and I used some of the money I made to help a neighbour.

"It was the first time I'd helped someone and it made me feel happy."

'Publicity stunts'

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Mr Chen bought 43 new cars for people whose vehicles were damaged during protests in 2012

More than four decades on, having made his fortune from his demolition and recycling business, Mr Chen has turned helping people into a major part of his brand image.

For him, generosity is not a modest ministry.

His publicity stunts have included dressing in a lime-green suit to give away dozens of free cars to people who had theirs damaged in an outbreak of rioting in 2012.

Or, more recently, filming himself while submerged up to his neck for 30 minutes in a wheelie-bin full of freezing water. An ice bucket challenge to beat all others.

But this bizarre blend of eccentricity and self-promotion has led many to question his real motives.

Does he give for the act's own sake or is his charity designed for some other, more cynical, purpose?

'Role model'

On meeting him at his offices in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing, he immediately hands me one of his business cards.

They are already familiar from the countless press reports ridiculing the fact that such extraordinary hubris can fit on such a tiny rectangle of paper.

Image caption Chen Guangbiao posing next to his certificates

The list of titles include: "Most Influential Person of China", "Most Prominent Philanthropist of China", "China Moral Leader" and "China Earthquake Rescue Hero", to pick just the first four.

There should be no surprise then that Mr Chen has commissioned his own documentary about himself, which within minutes of our introduction, he insists on showing me.

The lights are dimmed, and seated around a large boardroom table, we watch a work of such hyperbole and exaggeration it is almost entertaining, if it weren't also a little disturbing.

In scene after scene, the viewer is taken on a tour of some of the worst disasters to befall China and the surrounding region in recent years.

But amidst the death, privation and misery, there in the middle of it all is Mr Chen, megaphone in hand, cheerily marshalling the rescue traffic or handing out wads of banknotes to the huddled masses.

Bemusement is not normally an expression you'd expect to find in such circumstances, but there is, perhaps, the faintest glimmer of it on the faces of some of the victims.

The most graphic images are those of Mr Chen among the rescue teams at the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, heaving onto his back the battered, broken, dust-covered bodies and carrying them from the rubble.

News reports from the time suggest he saved the lives of 13 people and recovered another 200 bodies, although it seems at least a little distasteful to need to film it all.

"I have never thought about promoting myself," he tells me, after the lights were turned back on.

Mr Chen insists there is another, wider purpose to the high-profile nature of his charity.

"The world needs a person like me so that many other rich people will be able to follow my role model," he says. "If they do, many poor people will be helped."

China's rich

Mr Chen's rallying cry to the world's well-heeled touches a raw nerve at home because China's growing army of the super-rich is notoriously stingy when it comes to charitable giving.

The country has the second largest population of dollar-millionaires, after the US, and yet total charitable donations are just 4% of those recorded in America.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Mr Chen's rallying cry to the world's well-heeled wealthy may have touched a raw nerve at home

The beneficiaries of western capitalism may be accused of caring little about the plight of the poor but, in comparison, Communist China's new entrepreneurs appear positively indifferent.

In that sense, Mr Chen's stated strategy is a potentially dangerous one as it risks shaming not just his fellow-rich but the system as a whole. He claims to be unconcerned.

"Many rich people in China made their fortunes by damaging natural resources and building corrupt relations with the government," he tells me.

"Then they launder their money abroad. All these things make me very angry."

In August, state-run media claimed that Mr Chen had, alongside his relief efforts, made huge profits from his involvement in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

His company, Jiangsu Huangpu Renewable Resources Company, was accused of making about 2bn Chinese yuan (£200m; $325m) by recycling steel collected from the destroyed buildings.

Mr Chen denies the allegations, saying: "My high profile has offended some interest groups so they are always looking for excuses to put me in jail, but I believe God is a witness to what I do."

PR disaster

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Chen Guangbiao funded an extravagant banquet for 250 homeless people in New York

Some critics have seen in Mr Chen's character not so much the traits of a well-motivated maverick, fearlessly taking on and upsetting the tight-fisted Chinese establishment, but rather someone more concerned with aligning himself with core Communist values.

Mr Chen came to international prominence this summer when he funded an extravagant banquet for 250 homeless people at an expensive restaurant in New York's Central Park.

The lunch included volunteer helpers dressed in People's Liberation Army uniforms, adding the unmistakeable whiff of political propaganda to the aroma of sesame seed encrusted tuna and beef filet being served.

The event descended into chaos when he withdrew an offer to give his homeless guests $300 each in cash.

New York's destitute queued up to vent their fury in front of the assembled TV cameras.

"I was told that American homeless people like to buy alcohol and drugs," he tells me. "So I respected that advice and gave all of the money to a homeless shelter instead."

It started as a brash stunt, which some saw as making a cheap point about China's rising economic power, and having exploited the very people it purported to help, it ended in a public relations disaster.

"The New York trip had nothing to do with politics," Mr Chen tells me. "The trip had no political messages and I am personally never involved with government officials."

Rags to riches

Despite the serious questions about his motives though, there is something very believable about Mr Chen.

Some of his charitable endeavours may well be a little odd, misguided even, but he appears to be genuinely convinced by his own message of philanthropy and he is disarmingly unguarded.

How many other multi-millionaires are prepared to serenade reporters with renditions of We Are the World, the rock anthem of charitable giving, or talk openly about their anus?

His is a genuine rags-to-riches story and he seems to have real contempt for those who take their wealth too seriously.

So is he a phony philanthropist, a closet communist in clown's clothing or, as his business card claims, a real China Earthquake Rescue Hero?

After spending the morning with him the only thing that appears certain to me is that he believes his own hype.

The answers, the ideas, the inspiration for the New York lunch, they're almost certainly all his and his alone.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Chen Guangbiao singing We are the World at the New York luncheon for the homeless

Throughout our interview and for the whole morning that I'm with him in his office, there is no sign of any sophisticated PR consultant standing behind him feeding him lines.

Europe's landed gentry have taken generations to perfect the sneering attitude that to spend money ostentatiously is somehow vulgar.

China's rich have few such scruples and Mr Chen's logic is simple: he was once very poor and he now has lots of money. Why shouldn't he give it away as he chooses and who are we to criticise or mock?

And if nothing else, he has helped to shine a spotlight upon the lack of charitable giving in a society with one of the fastest growing gaps between rich and poor on the planet.

But watching him break into song at that New York homeless luncheon, belting out yet another rendition of We Are the World, you can't help wondering.

Perhaps just a few dollars spent on a little bit of basic PR advice, every now and again, wouldn't go amiss?

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