Tea Leaf Nation

China's Jeff Bezos, He Ain't

Eccentric multi-millionaire Chen Guangbiao's countrymen don't think he can -- or should -- buy the New York Times.

Money talks, but it doesn't always persuade. Chen Guangbiao, one of China's richest and most colorful men, said on Dec. 31 that he is preparing a bid to purchase the 150-year-old U.S. newspaper of record, in concert with an anonymous Hong Kong-based financier. Chen told Reuters on Dec. 31 that he believes the New York Times is worth $1 billion, and although the Ochs-Sulzberger family, which owns the paper, is unlikely to entertain his offer -- the family stated in Aug. 2013 that the paper was "not for sale" -- Chen has insisted he will still try. Worth an estimated $800 million of murky origin, Chen has grown notorious over the last several years though his flamboyant charitable giving -- he has, by his own count, literally handed out hundreds of thousands of dollars on a Chinese street -- and through publicity stunts like smashing a Mercedes-Benz to decry fossil fuels and hawking canned air online to raise money to buy a chain of disputed islands which the Chinese call the Diaoyu. He has amassed over 4.35 million Weibo followers, and Chinese mainstream media reliably covers his latest antics. 

On Jan. 3, on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, Chen posted an image of a plane ticket bound for an early afternoon landing in New York City. "Taking action is more important than everything else," Chen wrote, clearly implying he had the Old Gray Lady in his sights. (Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for the New York Times, told Foreign Policy, "we have no information" on any meeting with Chen.)  

But Chen may have to do more than convince a New York family to part with its prize: His quixotic effort doesn't even have support at home. A widely-circulated opinion piece from Chinese web portal CRI Online calls Chen's proposal "inappropriate" and its chances of success "microscopic," mainly because U.S. media and politicians at "every level" would oppose a Chinese bid. That, the author reasons, is enough to render "naive and immature" Chen's stated desire to make the New York Times's coverage of China more "fair and objective." Much of the Weibo commentariat agrees, with many commenting that Chen is a "clown" or a "tuhao," an insult hurled at the nouveau riche, who would buy the moon or "the U.S. government, if he could." 

The ridicule grew strong enough that Chen himself felt compelled to write a Jan. 3 op-ed in the state-run nationalist paper Global Times beseeching readers not to "treat as a joke" his plan to purchase the paper. "Why is this purchase bringing out so much misunderstanding and mockery?" Chen asked his readers. His conclusion: Chinese people are too conservative. 

Some of the derision aimed Chen's way is in fact decidedly liberal. One user wrote that a purchase of the New York Times would result in the paper's downfall, perhaps turning it into what many feared: a dangbao, or "party paper." Savvy consumers of Chinese news know that Chinese state-run media, which is controlled by the ruling Communist Party, often filters its news to reflect a particular version of reality. (An old saw about party mouthpiece People's Daily is that the only information it publishes that readers can trust fully is the date.) By contrast, in October 2012, the New York Times ran a Pulitzer-winning exposé on the wealth of former premier Wen Jiabao's family, in both English and Chinese. Although authorities censored the article almost immediately -- then blocked the newspaper's English and Chinese sites -- some Chinese web users still managed to discuss the bombshell report in coded language. Perhaps mindful of this history, one user asked of Chen, "Money can buy a pile of papers, but can it truly purchase the values of freedom of the press?" 

Censorship of the New York Times in China has made netizens skeptical of Chen's claims that a purchase would allow him to strengthen communication between the United States and China. "The New York Times specializes in helping the Communist Party root out corruption," one user wrote sarcastically; "it's not for the grassroots to read." Another questioned Chen's premise: "Chinese people don't not read the New York Times because it's not in China; it's because powerful forces use every dirty means to try to make Chinese people mute, blind, and stupid."

Chen, who did not immediately reply to a request for comment, still has his share of supporters. Several thousand commented on Chen's trip abroad, many wishing him a safe trip and triumphant return, while some, perhaps predictably, asked for money. Some lauded Chen's efforts to strike back at "American imperialists" by "propagating socialism." 

Another begged the Sulzbergers to sell to Chen, but for a different reason. Without a decent newspaper, Chinese readers are stuck with domestic rags like "the Global Turd," a common insult aimed at the Global Times

AFP/Getty Images

Tea Leaf Nation

The Raid on China's No. 1 Meth Village

3,000 cops just descended on China's biggest little 'ice' factory.

Boshe, a postage stamp of a village in China's southern Guangdong province, is not the type of place that would normally make headlines. But on Jan. 2, the town became famous, and for all the wrong reasons. Xinhua, China's largest state-run news agency, reports that on Dec. 29, police arrested 182 suspects, including a man who had once been Boshe's Communist Party chief, and seized about three tons of crystal meth, which the Chinese call "ice," in what state media calls the largest and most successful drug bust in Guangdong's history. But officials warned that the take-down of "Guangdong's No. 1 Drug Village," while symbolically significant, was just the beginning of the province's anti-drug push.

By all accounts, the Dec. 29 raid was massive: Over 3,000 police mobilized helicopters, motorboats, and police dogs to take down 77 drug-production sites, arresting scores of villagers and confiscating guns, knives, and a homemade bomb. (Three police were reported injured in the raid, but are in good condition.) If the Xinhua report is to be believed, this wasn't overkill for Boshe, the "most notorious" drug-manufacturing area under the aegis of Lufeng city, a municipality of about 1.1 million which provincial security official Guo Shaobo says produced more than one-third of China's meth over the past three years. The use of methamphetamines is growing in China: A Nov. 23 U.N. report found that the share of amphetamine users among all Chinese drug users had "continuously increased" over the preceding five years, while the total amount of meth seized in China rose 13 percent from 2011 to 2012. 

According to the prominent newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily, despite the village's miniscule size -- about 14,000 residents on far less than one square mile -- Boshe had defied previous attempts to rein in its drug operations, using human barricades of the elderly, women, and children to counter police forces. Meanwhile, local cops, far from busting producers, allegedly actually protected the village industry. State-run paper China Daily reports that Boshe officials also got in on the act, even village party chief Cai Dongjia, the "biggest drug trafficker" in the region. A Dec. 2 report in the widely-read Chinese newspaper Legal Daily described how, by the time of the raid, waste from drug production had formed six-foot-tall piles along Boshe's streets, and most residents had begun using home generators because the local power network could no longer handle demand. Locals told Legal Daily that pollution from meth manufacturing had grown so bad that the lychee fruit for which the village was once known would no longer grow there. 

The strike against Boshe is part of "Operation Thunder," which Guangdong authorities initiated in July 2013 in an effort to combat drug trafficking that originated there. So far, the operation has led to the arrest of 10,836 suspects and the seizure of almost nine tons of contraband. Despite these successes, Guo emphasized in a press conference that there was "still a lot of work to do." The results of all raids to date, he told the Legal Daily, were merely "the tip of the iceberg." 

AFP/Getty Images