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.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

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

David Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University.

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