Some have called him a clown, others a philanthropist, but while his attitude towards public recognition seems to borderline on narcissism, Chen Guangbiao is adamant about helping communities who are in need.
Despite coming from a destitute family, Chen, 45, is now one of China’s richest businessmen with an estimated net worth of $740 million — built through his founding and ownership of construction waste-recycling company Jiangsu Huangpu Recycling Resources.
Chen was born in 1968 and grew up during the Cultural Revolution and watched as two of his siblings died of starvation. Although Chen recognized the disparaging conditions, he was certain that he was going to live a long and prosperous life despite his impoverished beginnings. He said:
“I want Chinese history to remember me as Carnegie is remembered. I want Chinese people to remember me as they remember Marx and Lenin. I want people for the next century to think of me when they hear the word philanthropist. Everyone knows that Bill Gates is the richest man in the world. But the position of top philanthropist is vacant. My goal is to work diligently to become the top philanthropist in the world.”
Chen represents the classic story of the poor boy who grew up to be rich. Beginning work early on in his life, his father, Chen Lisheng, said that Chen would herd cattle, cut hay, and carry water for his neighbors. By the time he turned 15 he was selling popsicles and had earned enough money one summer to pay for the college tuition of one of his neighbors and himself.
Although Chen was motivated to make money for his future, he realized early on that there were others who were not as fortunate as he. If there were ever any children who wanted a popsicle but could not afford one, he would give it to them for free.
Today, Chen dubs himself the “Most Influential Person of China,” the “Most Prominent Philanthropist of China,” the “Most Well-known and Beloved Chinese Role Model” and, simply, “China’s Foremost,” on his business card.
While many would argue his claims, Chen has managed to help the world in positive ways, even if his methods appear to be in his best interest.
In June, Chen bought lunch for 250 homeless New Yorkers. Although he did not follow up on his promise to give each of his lunch guests a $300 cash gift, he served steak, green beans and dessert to individuals who are significantly less fortunate than he.
Chen is also known for bringing two women to the United States for plastic surgery treatment after they were disfigured in 2001 during a protest in an effort to persuade the world that Falun Gong — a spiritual movement banned by the Chinese government — is a justified discipline and not a cult.
In 2008, an earthquake struck the Sichuan province, and Chen was among the first to arrive to the epicenter with an army of employees and heavy machinery ready to clean up the wreckage, much like he later did in Tianjin.
Chen has said that his money would go to charity rather than his family upon his death and that he has recruited other Chinese millionaires and billionaires to follow suit. He told Fast Company in 2012:
“We come into the world naked, and we leave the world naked. We don’t want to take money with us into the afterlife.”
No matter the criticisms directed toward him, Chen plans to keep up his public philanthropy. He told CNN last year:
“I regret nothing. I am not afraid of what people say about me. I have not done anything that harms anyone. I think society needs diverse innovation. I will keep on giving positive energy through my creative solutions for problems.”
An outspoken opponent of pollution in China, Chen told Reuters in 2013:
“I want to tell mayors, county chiefs and heads of big companies: don’t just chase GDP growth, don’t chase the biggest profits at the expense of our children and grandchildren and at the cost of sacrificing our ecological environment”