Why A Chinese Tycoon’s Plans To Buy The New York Times Aren’t (Totally) Insane

A demolition expert comes to New York. Sulzberger can stay, Chen tells BuzzFeed.

Chinese philanthropist Chen Guangbiao arrives at a news conference. Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

If Chen Guangbiao is to be believed, his arrival in New York this week to pursue a long shot acquisition of The New York Times won’t be the last time a wealthy Chinese entrepreneur makes a move on a U.S. media property.

“I strongly believe that there will be such like people,” the recycling magnate told Buzzfeed in an interview Tuesday from his suite at the Essex Hotel overlooking Central Park after a press conference that he began (as is his custom) with a song. “Several entrepreneurs told me earlier that had they known [about my interest in the NYT] they would buy a couple news outlets for fun in the United States.”

Chen is not crazy. His pursuit of the Times certainly is, of course, but the larger idea that at some point in the not-too-distant future an absurdly wealthy Chinese citizen will become the proprietor of a U.S.-based media property, digital or otherwise, is a very real possibility. It could even be Chen, who mentioned several times during the interview that he would also be interested in “networking news media,” by which he meant Internet-based outlets, and equated ownership of a news outlet to “owning a bank.”

The remark is a telling one, since it underscores — at least for Chen but likely for many others — that wealth at a certain point stops being accrued with money. And whereas in the past eccentric billionaires looking for new ways to part with their money would usually fall prey to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, leading movie studios to become uniquely proficient in separating the wealthy from their cash, now they are falling victim to a not-so-new allure: influence. The barriers to entering the news business are comically low — just ask Jeff Bezos or Pierre Omidyar — and the potential reach unusually vast.

Put simply, Chen’s ultimate aim is true, but his selection of the Times as a target is way, way off. But his wealth is real — an authoritative Chinese list puts it around $740 millon in 2012. And it is entirely possible that say, Business Insider or Mashable, could provide a more easy to hit target in the future.

Unlike past rumors of a potential Times sale, which are typically born out of an assumption of vulnerability, Chen said his interest is based on its attractiveness. The entire rational for his wanting to buy the paper comes down to its global influence. Indeed, he said that New York Times Company Chairman Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. was “doing a fine job” in terms of the company’s business operations and his management decisions. And while Chen — who made his fortune in the recycling business and bills himself as “The Most Influential Person of China,” “China Earthquake Rescue Hero,” “Most Charismatic Philanthropist of China,” and “Demolition Expert,” among other descriptions — admitted that he has never heard of Rupert Murdoch, he cited the Sulzberger family as the ideal media proprietors and stewards he would most like to emulate. Chen even said that he “firmly believes in freedom of the press and democracy,” which is nothing short of stunning given his native country’s views on both topics.

Chen’s stated goal is to own or become a controlling shareholder of the Times or its “homepage.” In a press conference Tuesday morning, Chen said that he was prepared to offer $1 billion for the Times that he could wire transfer into an account within 30 days of an agreement. He said $400 million of that amount would come from him, while the remaining $600 million would be provided by a “Hong Kong business tycoon.”

Later, however, in an interview with Buzzfeed, he said he is willing to increase his offer to $3 billion in light of the Times’s current market worth of around $2.5 billion. He said he would be able to get the extra money from rich entrepreneurs in China and across Asia but would only pay that amount if he received voting control, an agreement that the Times would be printed in both English and Chinese, and its websites were included as part of the deal.

Despite his heavy philanthropic involvement, Chen, perhaps refreshingly, views his desire to acquire the Times as a business rather than a charitable endeavor. He said he wants to invest in the Times to “increase its circulation to make money.”

A representative for the Times Company declined to comment for this post, but Sulzberger has said publicly in the past that the company is not for sale.

But even if it was, Chen exhibited a basic lack of understanding about the Times’s ownership structure and dealmaking in general. He does not currently own any shares of the Times Company and said he is not interested in buying shares on the open market. He said he is prepared to spend $1 billion to acquire voting shares, but apparently doesn’t understand that since they are controlled by descendants of the Sulzberger family they can’t be bought on the open market and would have to be sold to him by family members directly.

The billionaire, who rose from utter poverty (two of his siblings died of starvation), said that he was supposed to meet with a Times shareholder on January 5, but the meeting was cancelled after engendering the ire of the unnamed shareholder by speaking about it publicly.

“He got resentful that I mentioned it,” said Chen, who declined to provide the name or affiliation of the shareholder “based on Chinese professional ethics.”

AP Photo/Richard Drew

Chen, who is derisively referred to as China’s Donald Trump and once handed out canned fresh air to citizens as a way to fight pollution, held a press conference at the Essex Hotel on Tuesday morning to discuss his plans to buy the Times, among other topics. Dressed in a dark navy blue suit, light blue shirt, and blue-and-gold striped tie, Chen entered the Grand Ballroom to a round of applause from the mostly foreign media in attendance.

After jokingly warning the translator to not make a mistake, Chen kicked off the press conference with his signature move of singing a song — this one called, “My Chinese Dream.” He then talked at length about his charitable works, saying things like, “I started out studying medicine and became a doctor. Now I am a doctor for the Earth and for this planet.”

And after talking a bit about his media aspirations, Chen produced two women, Hao Huijun and Chen Guo, a mother and daughter with severe burns on their face and body as a result of the 2001 self-immolation in Tiananmen Square. While their attendance was meant to underscore Chen’s charitable works, two people in the crowd — a reporter for New Tang Dynasty Television and the president of non-profit agency Uphold Justice — aggressively questioned whether the victims’ burns were precipitated by actions of the Falun Gong, as has been previously reported, or in reality the result of a conspiracy involving the Chinese regime. Standing beside Chen, the women told the press the burns were the result of their own behavior.

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