The Mogul Takes Manhattan

China’s most eccentric tycoon just made New York’s homeless sing for their supper. Then he did magic tricks.

NEW YORK — Lunch at Central Park's Loeb Boathouse is an elegant affair, popular among well-heeled tourists and alumni networking associations for its lakeside view and excellent service. But on Wednesday, the restaurant hosted hundreds of homeless people, dozens of journalists, several bodyguards watching over a silver case most likely filled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, two badly disfigured survivors of self-immolation, and one Chen Guangbiao. A 45-year-old recycling tycoon and self-proclaimed "China's Top Philanthropist," Chen was in Manhattan to stage a charity event. What he ended up creating was something more like theater of the absurd -- think of it as Samuel Beckett with Chinese characteristics.

While megaphone-wielding protestors standing across the street called for the downfall of the Chinese Communist Party, inside the swank boathouse hundreds of homeless people bused in from a shelter picked at sesame-seed-encrusted tuna and expensive cuts of beef, and clapped politely as Chen belted out "We Are the World" -- awkwardly, as Chen speaks almost no English.

"My way of doing things got a lot of criticism in China, but I hope what I'm doing here will get cheered on in the United States," he said, to mild applause. "Homeless friends of America! What I am giving you is not a fish, but a fishpole." He then quoted Chairman Mao Zedong, sang a communist song about the selfless hero Lei Feng, and performed elementary-school-level magic tricks.

Earlier in June, Chen had taken out a massive ad in the New York Times -- a paper he unsuccessfully tried to buy in January -- promising to host a charity luncheon for 1,000 "poor and destitute Americans," each of whom would receive $300 dollars.

Not surprisingly, in the days leading up to the event, Chen received a lot of coverage. "He smashed his own Mercedes to encourage people to ride bikes," wrote CBS. "He sold canned air to call attention to China's air pollution problem. He's been known to hand out red envelopes of cash to the poor. And now, he's in America."

At 10 a.m., two hours before the Wednesday lunch, dozens of homeless people milled around in the park outside the restaurant, staring suspiciously at the fresh-faced Chinese volunteers, most of whom were incongruously dressed in the green uniforms of the 1950s People's Liberation Army. Chen had promised tickets and cash to 1,000 homeless people, but it seemed that only a few hundred, organized by the shelter New York City Rescue Mission, would be allowed in.

"He's a Chinese billionaire who was going to sing for us, and give us a free meal and $300, and now he's not," said 63-year-old Frank Guiliani, who had come to the park hoping to get the free money and lunch, but who was stuck watching outside. "I had shit to do today." 

Despite the tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on the event, the lunch felt very disorganized, as if it all had been thrown together recently. Which, indeed, it had: In his speech, Chen boasted that he organized the entire event in just a few days, after his original plans -- which he didn't elaborate on -- fell through.

The waitstaff looked offended, the audio quality was reminiscent of a high-school auditorium, and there were dozens of plates of wasted food. One of the employees at the shelter complained about the dessert choice. "I suggested chocolate cake for dessert. Many of the homeless are fighting addictions, and the sugar helps with that. But they wanted to serve berries instead." Chen's musical accompaniment for "We Are the World," a group named Audible Chocolate, had only been found the day before, when one of Chen's employees saw them busking. "We're NYC people, and we're down with homeless people," said Lo Anderson, the group's singer. "It seems like it was for a good cause."

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Chen is an easy target for ridicule, not unlike Donald Trump, that American avatar of craven self-promotion. His English-language business card proclaims that he's the "Most Charismatic Philanthropist of China," and he seems in desperate need of validation. But like many Chinese of his generation, he comes from extreme poverty, and has something to prove.

In 1966, Chairman Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution, a massive and maddening campaign to reassert control over the government that ushered in a decade of anarchy. Mao raised an army of millions of students, exhorting them to upend the traditional order and, like Lei Feng, to "serve the people." Chen was born in 1968 in a rural county in the eastern province of Jiangsu; in 1972, his brother and sister died of hunger, a fact he sometimes mentions in interviews. Chen himself "almost starved to death in a time of famine," reads promotional material for the 2011 hagiographic book China's Top Philanthropist Chen Guangbiao.

He sold popsicles in high school and a contraption he claimed cured diseases after college, but it wasn't until he discovered the recycling business in the mid-1990s that he found success. In the years since, he has accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars of wealth, building up a successful empire and donating, by his own estimate, tens of millions of dollars. In his office in Nanjing, he displays "4,000 honorable certificates, 20,000 hada (silk scarves presented by Tibetans to respected people), and 3,000 banners," according to the Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post.

Chen burst into fame by personally leading 120 workers to help rescue victims of the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed roughly 70,000 people. "I carried more than 200 bodies," he told a reporter from the U.S. business magazine Fast Company.

"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."

I first met Chen in February 2011, in the midst of the U.S. financial crisis, while I was a Beijing-based correspondent for Newsweek. Chen was holding court at an expensive and ostentatious restaurant in Beijing with a group of Taiwanese and Chinese journalists. He had just returned from a high-profile trip to Taiwan, where he held a "donation ceremony" and handed out red envelopes stuffed with cash. But altruism alone isn't quite Chen's bag: "I think helping poor people is an experience worthy of promotion," he told me. Dreams of a political legacy also flitted through his mind. "I would donate all of my money" to build a bridge from the mainland to the small Taiwanese island of Jingmen, he said. But he stressed that he's not representing the Chinese Communist Party. "I don't hook myself up to the government," said Chen.

Inspired by the philanthropist billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, Chen pledged to donate all of his money after he dies. But while he's alive, he thrills at the idea of personally distributing it himself.

As we lunched in Beijing, he became animated about the idea of giving money to laid-off Wall Street bankers at the depths of the financial crisis. "You can recommend one," he told me. "I'll give him $5,000. This banker, after receiving my red envelope, he won't be able to sleep. He'll be thinking about his life. You can recommend 10 out-of-work bankers, and I'll give each of them $5,000." (I never provided him a list; Chen called me a few weeks later, at 11:30 p.m., and said he was nixing the plan because his company wasn't doing well.)

That didn't crush his dreams of bringing his unique brand of philanthropy to the United States. "I've already surveyed American people, and they're happy to receive an envelope full of money," he told me.

Standing on stage in an elegant Central Park restaurant and handing out cash to Americans, however, will have to remain a dream. At the end of his June 25 event, Chen learned that charity in the United States might be even more complicated than his largesse back at home. It's unclear exactly what transpired. But it seems like although Chen had promised in his New York Times advertisement to hand out $300 to each homeless person at the lunch, Craig Mayes, the executive director of New York City Rescue Mission, refused to allow him to do so, causing a ripple of anger to spread through the crowd.

"I'm not going to allow them to distribute cash to the homeless," he reiterated to a mass of reporters who had gathered to see why several homeless people were shouting and waving their hands in the direction of Chen and Mayes. Someone knocked over a vase of roses. Chen, who doesn't speak English, looked confused at the angry scrum Mayes' remarks had produced. "If you give cash to homeless, some of them are going to go out and buy drugs," Mayes said.

Chen then tried to placate the crowd. "My homeless friends: I have heard that you have the highest quality of class of any homeless people in the world," a remark that the translator helpfully ignored. Trust in me and the mission, Chen offered, saying that he would give out the money later. (At press time, it's unclear if Chen distributed the money.) Ernest St. Pierre, a 54-year-old nattily dressed homeless man who had told me earlier he was "smooth as butter" was angry. "Fuck this country," he said. "You lied to people."  

The crowd of homeless people shuffled back to their bus. "So everyone is furious, that's the takeaway," muttered a reporter from the New York Post.

Chen, however, seemed unfazed. As he made his exit, I asked him what he thought of the event. "I'm very satisfied," he said with a smile. "China is rich, and America is rich, and this was very successful in development of my U.S. philanthropy." His next plan, he told me, was to do an event distributing money somewhere in Africa.

And Chen wasn't the only one who left feeling satisfied. To Audible Chocolate, the charity was appreciated. "They paid us decent, and it came at a great time," said Anderson. "He made it rain."

Andrew Burton/Getty Images



In the refugee camps of Iraqi Kurdistan, the insurgents are not often what they seem.

ERBIL, IraqOn June 17, late at night, a man wandered between the neat rows of newly erected tents at the Khazer refugee camp, startling the Kurdish photographer Ali Arkady awake. After a long day among the displaced -- a few hundred Iraqis who had fled Mosul after it was taken over by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) -- Arkady had fallen asleep near where two local aid workers sat eating a late dinner. He watched as the aid workers shined their dim cellphone lights onto the face of the man, who looked "shocked," Arkady later told me, like he had been caught.

Single men who claimed to be displaced were not being allowed into Iraqi Kurdistan -- at least not without going through a lengthy process, including securing a local guarantor, to prove they were harmless. The man must have known that he would not have been offered refuge at Khazer, and so Arkady and the aid workers assumed he didn't plan on staying long. "That's why we thought he was from ISIS," Arkady told me.  

Arkady and the aid workers immediately suspected he had come to kidnap the Iraqi soldiers at this camp set up in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish north, which had become a makeshift home for Iraqis fleeing the fighting just south of the Kurdish border. ISIS's propaganda has lately centered on chilling photos and video of government soldiers who had either already been executed by the jihadists or were on the way to their death.

The Iraqis who have walked or driven through the Kurdish peshmerga's checkpoints to reach the Khazer refugee camp have divergent accounts of the extremist group that uprooted them. Nazir Mohammed, a 46-year-old father of three, told me he was more worried about the retaliatory shelling by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's troops than ISIS. So he hauled his family north: His young kids screamed in the car, tired from the heat, while Mohammed secured a small cage of birds to the roof, covering it gently with a blanket.

It was impossible to tell whether Mohammed's account was genuine or professed out of the kind of intense fear that can tail a person into safety. "[ISIS doesn't] interfere in people's lives," he said. "They tell us not to be afraid. Of course, we know it would be different if we were Shiite."

That shocked but sanguine -- and sometimes supportive or even grateful -- assessment of ISIS has been echoed throughout the camp as the community grows. Some observers and journalists see it as evidence that the extremist group was aided by local Sunni leaders, who had personal connections to the internally displaced people. Others read that politically savvy Baathists, dormant since the fall of Saddam Hussein, had helped ISIS win hearts and minds.

Whatever the implication in Mohammed's account, ISIS in Iraq was revealing itself to be a much more diverse organization than previously portrayed. "ISIS is just the cover," Hemin Hawrami, the head of foreign relations for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, told me. "They don't have more than 2,000 fighters. Is it possible for 2,000 fighters to get control of a vast area.... [The territory ISIS has captured] is bigger than all of Iraqi Kurdistan!"

From Kurdistan, where most journalists have watched the crisis unfold, it was impossible to know exactly how ISIS was operating and who had the control within the group. Video footage played during television news segments tended to be plucked from the ISIS YouTube account, while a great number of photographs were likewise sourced from the extremist group's large and apparently deft online presence. The group was sweeping through Iraq, gathering, it seemed, local Sunni leaders along with remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime as they went. It was raising its black flag over Iraqi cities and towns, forcing locals like Mohammed from their homes, and doing so by aggressively perpetuating its reputation for brutality. It had money and weapons. It had the support of many Sunnis who considered it the beginning of a revolution, however harsh, against the Maliki government.

As the days went by, reports from internally displaced people and journalists circulated that ISIS had begun to crack down on the areas it had seized, enforcing its medieval version of Islamic law. "The euphoria of the first few days, about ISIS kicking out Maliki, is about to dissipate," Hiwa Osman, a Kurdish political commentator in Erbil, told me. As the group began enforcing sharia law, Osman anticipated that the locals would begin to recognize the supposed revolutionaries as terrorists.

Osman was himself trying to put together the ISIS puzzle. "ISIS is posting on Facebook and on social media," he told me. "They are doing an efficient job with that, putting up the right pictures to scare people off. The Baathists are providing guidance and help to ISIS to win small but yet spectacular battles in various areas, and then have it reported and put on Facebook. The tribes are bringing the popular support."

Closer to the fighting, the assessment was less clear. By June 20, the city of Kirkuk -- which had been captured and sealed off by Kurdish peshmerga after Iraqi soldiers abandoned their posts and ISIS tried to march through -- was a ghost town. The oil-rich territory is claimed by Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen, and is accustomed to being the center of disputes. A local gold merchant and his family -- his wife, one young daughter, two grown sons, and his mother -- had not left their house since ISIS took the town of Hawija, just south of Kirkuk. "We heard that ISIS has no problem with the Kurds," the father told me, clasping his hands on his lap. He seemed to take little solace in this belief.

"ISIS has Afghans, Syrians, Europeans, all of them. And Saudi Arabia supports them," the father told me. "Nobody knows what they want. They say they want Iraq to be Islamic, but they are not real Muslims."

Nearby, in the stifling dormitory of a local college, six Hawija natives lay on foam mattresses in front of a wheezing air cooler, listening to music on a cordless radio. Their clothes were damp with sweat. One defended ISIS. Last year, the Iraqi Army brutally cracked down on an anti-government protest in Hawija, killing dozens. ISIS, among other things, is the manifestation of the townspeople's fury in the wake of the massacre.

Another was vague. "What is ISIS?" he said, tracing a question mark in the air with his forefinger. Four others remained quietly standing near the wall. "I know more about ISIS, but I can't tell," the second boy said. His family had fled to nearby Sulaimaniyah, and he didn't have enough money to visit them. "ISIS is the civilians," he said. "ISIS is not ISIS."

Even Kirkuk journalists struggled to understand the jihadist group. Haji Kirkuky has covered conflict for local newspapers in his native Kirkuk for decades, but he was unwilling to venture too close to the extremists a mere 30 minutes' drive from his office. Instead, he relied on phone calls from friends in Hawija for information. But they were aware of the consequences of their testimony.

"I ask my friends, 'Why aren't you telling the media what you need?'" Kirkuky said. "They are afraid. ISIS has made rules. They have set up checkpoints."

Kirkuky gave the impression of Hawija as one big hostage-taking. "They hate women. They don't want a civilian court," he continued, relating to me what his friends had told him over the phone. "Sunni groups made an agreement, not only in Mosul," he paused. "The story is much bigger than this."

On June 17, after the unidentified man had fled Khazer refugee camp into the night, Arkady and the aid workers were shaken by the incident. The Iraqi soldiers were like flares in the camp, drawing attention to the families huddled among them. They seemed to occupy the most wretched position in the conflict -- beholden to a corrupt government, mocked as deserters, hunted by extremists. In their lowest moment, comatose in the camp's dense heat, the Iraqi soldiers were straightforward about their experience with ISIS, who many had seen up close.

"One of the soldiers told me he wanted to kill himself," Arkady said. "That it would be better than this situation."

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images