At first glance, Chinese tycoon Chen Guangbiao’s appearance in New York this week looked like little more than a Chinese soft-power effort gone terribly wrong. First came Chen’s ill-fated effort to buy the New York Times. Then came Chen’s bizarre press conference in New York featuring a patriotic singing performance by Chen, a brief foreign policy lecture to Americans, and an appearance by two purported Falun Gong self-immolation victims as an example of the evils of Falun Gong practice. These are the details focused on in reports by most large news organizations and in my previous post on Chen’s visit.
Chinese American media, in particular the Epoch Times and New Tang Dynasty TV (NTDTV), have been digging more deeply into the back story behind these odd events, raising some very interesting questions, and revealing some very interesting details. One question is on the nature and depth of Chen’s ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which seem to be quite deep indeed. Another is what might have been behind the decision to bring the purported self-immolation victims to America, which could not have happened without high-level CCP participation. A third is why coverage on the self-immolation victims was banned as soon as it appeared in Chinese media, even though it falls fully in line with CCP policy on Falun Gong. These investigations suggest that Chen’s appearance was much more than just a bad Chinese soft-power circus act.
Despite his often clownish public persona, Chen appears to have serious CCP ties, as would anyone in China likely to be in a position to attempt large investments abroad. As political scientist Bruce J. Dickson observed in The China Quarterly, “integrating wealth and power” by “co-opting entrepreneurs” has long been a key CCP strategy for maintaining its hold on political power while liberalizing the economic system. “China’s capitalists have a stake in preserving the political system that has allowed them to prosper,” Dickson writes, “and they are among the Party’s most important bases of support.” As Lu Chen further observes at Epoch Times, Chen Guangbiao and others like him — “red capitalists” — would not have the positions of wealth and power that they have without pledging loyalty to the CCP. In return for their loyalty, they are richly rewarded.
These observations are confirmed at Chen’s company website, which contains a large amount of CCP political content. In 2011, for example, Chen’s company hosted a communist “Red Song Celebration” to commemorate the CCP’s 90th anniversary. According to Peter Park at NTDTV, Chen’s CCP ties also include close ties with the party’s central propaganda department and the Chinese military. These ties include exchanges of money and government contracts. According to Park also, Chen has used these ties to threaten Chinese journalists whose reporting he deemed unfriendly. The propaganda department, for its part, repaid Chen’s loyalty by issuing a warning to journalists against any “negative reports” on Chen.
The appearance at Chen’s news conference in New York of a disfigured mother and daughter purported to be Falun Gong self-immolation victims takes the story of Chen’s ties with the CCP to a deeper, darker level. This is briefly described in my previous post and discussed in more detail by R.J. Mitchell, Joshua Philipp, and Matthew Robertson at Epoch Times. The two women were purported to be former Falun Gong members who were disfigured by self-immolation in 2001, and according to Chen, were with him to receive restorative surgery at his expense. As Mitchell, Philipp, and Robertson discuss in detail, however, the 2001 self-immolation incident reported by Chinese authorities is widely regarded as a Chinese government hoax carried out to justify its repression of Falun Gong practitioners.
Since 2001, the two women have been under house arrest in China, and could not have left China to appear with Chen in New York without high-level CCP participation. According to Mitchell and Robertson, this may be related to the recent downfall of former vice-minister for public security Li Dongsheng as part of a wider CCP power struggle that also recently claimed former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai. From 2000, Li headed the public security office responsible for suppressing Falun Gong. If the 2001 self-immolation incident was a hoax, Li would be the likely mastermind. Li is now “under investigation,” however, and is part of a wider power network — including Bo Xilai — which the current leadership seeks to crush. This would be a likely reason for why Chen’s appearance with the two purported self-immolation victims in New York was censored in China.
While the full story and Chen Guangbiao’s role in it remain unclear, it does appear that there is much more to Chen’s appearance in New York than meets the eye. If the Epoch Times authors are correct, this would amount to a CCP inner-party power struggle being acted out in America.