The man with the most (in)famous business card in the worldJanuary 12, 2014: 4:10 PM ET
Before he gained notoriety with his visit to New York, idiosyncratic mogul Chen Guangbiao attracted plenty of questions in China.
By Scott Cendrowski, writer
FORTUNE -- When you hit the New York media circuit with "Most Influential Person of China" … and "China Moral Leader" … and "China Top Ten Most Honorable Volunteer" among the distinctions listed on your ming pian ("business card" to you and me), you can expect to take a few hits. Sure enough, Guangbiao Chen, an entrepreneur from China's eastern region whose business is tearing down buildings ("demolition expert," on the business card), got plenty of them this week.
Writers in the U.S. stretched to describe the man who traveled to America, he says, to purchase part or all of the New York Times or possibly the Wall Street Journal. (Nothing doing on both counts.) They marveled at his gift for self-promotion, though it should be noted that during his publicity stop at Fortune, Chen averred that "Whatever I do, I never think about the publicity."
The head-scratching is not confined to the United States. Journalists in China have been trying to figure him out for the past four years.
Chen was a little-known entrepreneur in 2008 until he sent 60 of his demolition machines and 120 workers to help rescue teams pull out survivors of the earthquake in Sichuan providence. In typical Chinese fashion, his contributions were summarized in numbers: 130 people dug out from the rubble, more than 100 million RMB donated to the area. The state-run tabloid Global Times says then-Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao called him "an entrepreneur with a good conscience, morals, compassion."
Ever since, Chen has employed a showman's tactics. He has talked about changing his Chinese name to "low carbon" to raise awareness of green issues, and he sold canned air as a stunt. Chen flew to Taiwan to give $250,000 to poor people. He donated money to Japan's tsunami victims in 2011.
Whether he's got what Forbes estimates to be a net worth of $740 million is fodder for Chinese journalists, too. A Dec. 24 picture of Chen surrounded by what he said was $230 million in cash got reporters at the popular Chinese web portal Sohu working. They reported on Dec. 27 that his company suffered losses in 2008 and 2009, and concluded there's no way Chen's business revenues could post profits as high as he's stated. They also quoted him previously saying that having success in his industry was "even more difficult than eating shit."
A well-connected business consultant in Beijing told me that Chen is far outside the mainstream. He said some businessmen detest his vainglory; others brush it aside. Even Chen's charitable giving has been criticized. One of China's most well-known experts in philanthropy, Yongguang Xu, wrote a critical piece in 2011 about Chen haphazardly giving cash away and collecting donations from other entrepreneurs to distribute.
In his visit to Fortune, Chen asserted that he is actually worth $1.5 billion. He stated that he was visiting New York with the goal of acquiring part or all of the New York Times and, displaying the earnest optimism of a beauty-pageant contestant, he vowed to use the newspaper to spread his values of world peace, charity, and environmental protection. He did allow that "Because of my profile -- or as we put it, 'flashy philanthropy,' in China -- I offended many officials and wealthy people."
In that 2011 article, Xu called on Chen to improve his professionalism. He may have been ahead of his time.