Foreign Policy Blogs

A Soft Power Stumble


One person apparently refusing to accept money offered by Chinese billionaire Chen Guangbiao on the streets of New York (photo: China Smack)

Ever since it became a rising economic power, China started to realize the need for soft power in order to increase its global competitiveness.  In Africa, Beijing found itself competing with Western companies backed by development agencies imposing good governance and human rights restrictions.  Beijing sought to appeal to some African nations by offering to build factories and infrastructure backed by Chinese financing and bearing no cumbersome Western restrictions concerning governance, the environment or human rights.  China has been praised by many for bringing much-needed infrastructure to Africa, but severely criticized by others for helping dictators and their corrupt regimes stay in power, and using money to buy soft power.

Bejing also missed a golden opportunity to gain soft power when its neighbor, the Philippines, was struck by Super Typhoon Haiyan in November last year.  Australia, Britain and the U.S. immediately pledged $28 million, $26 million and $20 million, respectively, Japan offered $10 million, yet Beijing’s initial offer came to a mere $100,000.  The diminuitive offer was widely viewed as representative of Chinese anger over President Benigno Aquino’s willingness to pushback on China’s claims for territory in the South China Sea, and widely ridiculed as an alarming failure of Beijing’s advancement of soft power.

This week, it was a Chinese private citizen’s turn to stumble on soft power, as Chinese billionaire, nationalist, philanthropist, and self-proclaimed “Most Influential Person of China” (see photo below) Chen Guangbiao handed out $100 bills to homeless people and buskers on the streets of New York.  Mr. Chen is fairly well-known in China for such publicity stunts as smashing scooters, selling canned fresh air, giving new Chinese cars to owners of vandalized Japanese cars, trying to buy the New York Times, and advocating for population control by not allowing uneducated people to have children.

Chen Guangbiao Business Card

(photo: China Smack)

Chen Guangbiao must have thought he was acting in his and China’s best interests when he posted a full-page advertisement in the New York Times inviting 1,000 poor Americans in Manhattan to a free lunch where he would hand out $300 in cash to each deserving individual.  Perhaps in this way, in his role as “Beloved Chinese Role Model”, he could show that philanthropy does exist in China, “I want to spread the message in the US that there are good philanthropists in China and not all are crazy spenders on luxury goods.”  Or perhaps Chen wanted to send a message that the U.S. cannot properly take care of its poor, setting the stage for the headline “Americans live in deprivation, rely on Chinese to provide emergency financial aid to survive” apparently carried by the People’s Daily and Xinwen Lianbo, two Chinese media outlets.

But what seemed like a good idea at the time turned into a disastrous public relations stunt, when Chen Guangbiao, who took out advertisements in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, reneged on his earlier promises.  In the adverts, Chen said he would provide lunch, sing the 1985 charity single “We Are the World,” and give each attendee $300.  However, after the lunch, only four guests were brought on stage and given the money, and rumors quickly spread among the guests that no one else would be getting any cash.  After guests started chanting “Where’s the money?” Chen assured his guests this was forthcoming, but left shortly afterwards without distributing any cash.  Evidently Chen had changed his mind due to security concerns highlighted by homeless advocates and police – concerned that the homeless might spend the money on drugs, and that it could be better used in programs to help them in other ways.

To many Chinese, Chen Guangbiao is China’s Dennis Rodman, an unsanctioned ambassador who clumsily stumbles into the realm of international relations to the embarrassment of his government and people.  While he clearly loves his country, and is trying to show he is doing the right thing, he is in dire need of a public relations advisor.  By thinking he can just throw money at any problem, he is unfortunately harming the image of his countrymen in his patriotic attempts to gain soft power for China.  We should instead hear less of Chen and more about the unsung Chinese heroes who do not have the fame or fortune of Rodman or Chen, yet are still making a small difference in people’s lives.




Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666