Chinese Demolition King: I’m Serious About Buying the New York Times

Chen Guangbiao says he may be a "maverick" but he doesn't like playing tricks

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Chen Guangbiao (C), Chairman of Jiangsu Huangpu Recycling Resources Co., Ltd, presents his company's product canned fresh air at Beijing Financial Street on Jan. 30, 2013 in Beijing, China

He’s not kidding. Chinese scrap mogul Chen Guangbiao wants the world to know that he isn’t fooling around in his attempt to acquire the New York Times. In a Jan. 5 op-ed in the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party-linked newspaper, the man who made his three-quarters of a billion dollar fortune by knocking down buildings and salvaging their ruins wrote:

“Many people think I’m just bragging. Similarly, a spokesman for The New York Times said that the paper would not comment on the rumor. I just feel bewildered: Why is a Chinese investor buying a US newspaper viewed as a ‘rumor?’ Against the background of increasing economic integration and international cooperation, how can people draw a conclusion that it is a rumor?

I may be a maverick, but it doesn’t mean I like playing tricks. I want to purchase The New York Times. Please do not treat it as a joke.”

On Dec. 30, Chen said that he was planning to go to the U.S. to discuss an acquisition of the New York Times, whose value he put at around $1 billion. However Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the publisher of the paper, has said that the publication is not looking for buyers. In his Global Times article, Chen noted that his own funds are limited but that he has “persuaded a Hong Kong entrepreneur to contribute $600 million to this cause.” Such cash, he implied, would be noticed in the struggling media industry. “There’s nothing that can’t be bought for the right price,” he wrote in the Global Times.

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But Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, dismisses Chen’s business proposition. “Is totally impossible for Chen to purchase the New York Times, if you understand its share structure,” he says. “Chen’s actions are free advertisement for the New York Times because many Chinese people now know about paper because of him.”

The New York Times has invested heavily in its China coverage, even starting up a Chinese-language website. But that site, as well as the paper’s English-language online presence, has been blocked in China ever since the New York Times published an investigation into the wealth accrued by the family of former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao. As the New York Times has continued to uncover the lives of prominent Chinese political families, its journalists based in China have been hassled, most recently when their visa applications were held up until the last minute. Other New York Times correspondents who for months have been awaiting permission to begin working in China remain in limbo.

Far from complimenting the New York Times for its performance on the China beat, Chen implied in the Global Times that he considered the paper’s coverage wanting:

“I find Americans know little about a civilized and open China that has been enjoying unprecedented development. The tradition and style of The New York Times make it very difficult to have objective coverage of China. If we could purchase it, its tone might turn around.

If I succeed, I will conduct some necessary reforms, the ultimate goal of which is to make the paper’s reports more authentic and objective, thus rebuilding its credibility and influence. This will facilitate the world’s leading paper in future development and profit-making.”

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In Dec. 2012, Chen took out an advertisement in the New York Times, in which he argued that a collection of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea belong to China, not Japan, which currently administers them. It was when he took out that half-page ad, he says, that the idea of buying the New York Times germinated. The flashy magnate also made headlines that year when he bought Chinese cars for locals whose Japanese vehicles had been destroyed in anti-Japanese protests sparked by Japan’s decision to nationalize some of the islands.

Even if Chen fails in his New York Times endeavor, he wrote in the Global Times that he wants to “try to buy another influential media [sic], eventually achieving my objective of acquisition.” But some Chinese have wondered why he doesn’t focus on a local publication, rather than a Western one.

All Chinese media are muzzled by state censors and are constantly sent directives by the government propaganda bureau on which stories they cannot touch. Others, like the Global Times, carry patriotic — and often combative — articles designed for maximum international impact. Yuan Guobao, a Chinese journalist, wrote on his Chinese micro-blogging account: “Chen claims after he purchases the newspaper, he wants to enhance the objectiveness of the New York Times and reshape its authenticity and influence. If this is the reason why he wants to buy the newspaper, wouldn’t it be a better idea to purchase the Global Times?”

with reporting by Gu Yongqiang/Beijing