After trying (sorta) and failing to buy The New York Times, Chen Guangbiao is back. This time he thinks he's the right man to buy The Wall Street Journal because he is "very good at working with Jews." That's ummm ... reassuring, right?
Considering how many times one of Rupert Murdoch's papers have been accused of anti-Semitism, a jovial Chinese man who says he can work with Jewish people might be a nice upgrade. But that's probably getting ahead of ourselves.
There's a good chance that you've never heard of Chen Guangbiao before last week, when he declared to anyone who would listen that he intended to buy America's biggest newspaper. It all sounded very foolish, but you don't navigate a complicated political and business climate to become one of China's richest (and weirdest) citizens by being a fool. Chen is a noted philanthropist in his own country, but he is also a showman. A multimillionaire who made his fortune in recycling, Chen once sold empty cans full of "fresh air" as a way to draw attention to air pollution.
Though Chen claims he genuinely wants to buy The Wall Street Journal, it's getting pretty clear that he's less interested in becoming a newspaper mogul, then he is in becoming an American celebrity. First step: Get the media's attention, by telling them you want to be one of them.
What Chen seems serious about is a calculated attempt to occupy the adorable dopey Asian celebrity space in the U.S. That's kind of why you would do things like make sure the Chinese media knows you are flying to the United States to buy a newspaper; make sure everyone knows that your not-serious bid got shut down; then get quoted saying something delightfully clueless like, "I am going to talk to the Wall Street Journal and find out if it's for sale." (The comment about Jewish people was just a bonus.)
You can also hand out these ridiculous business cards. That's what we call networking.
That probably doesn't feel like the normal thought process for someone who can turn a recycling company in an environmentally unfriendly, Communist-controlled country into a $600 million fortune. Yes, his recent actions make him look like a harmless class clown and most of the coverage surrounding Chen's attempt to buy The Times were smirky articles whose punchline was some permutation of "get a load of this guy." (It was my first reaction too.)
Chen, of course, isn't a Batman villain, even if he sometimes dresses like one. However, the attention paid to him does make us wonder why certain members of the media are so fascinated and tickled by Chen, and display a reluctance to paint him as in on the joke too.
His arrival on the scene is not unlike PSY, the South Korean one-hit-wonder. PSY's song "Gangnam Style" was actually a harsh critique of bourgeois South Korean culture, but its unclear if that joke came through on American soil, even as the song became a smash hit, or if Americans were just laughing at a portly Asian man who dances funny. "If you take the PSY in the video at face value, absent of irony, are you left with an emasculated overweight horse-dancing clownish foreigner?" Matthew Salesses wrote at The Rumpus.
"And what does it say if this is what most Americans see and if they love the video despite (because?) of it?" Salesses asked. Apply that to Chen and it makes you wonder if they've missed the irony. If Chen were from the U.S., he'd probably be taken as seriously as publicity hound Donald Trump (which is to say not very much). Instead, he's on the verge of becoming a new folk hero.
What helps further this idea of Asian cluelessness, is that it fits alongside other strange stories of like the North Korean government declaring they've found evidence of unicorns, or people biting ostriches to death in China, or fake space monkeys in Iran that get more attention and more clicks than stories about China's insistence on pouring cash into academic and commercial research, or the Philippines' booming economy (even after being devastated by Haiyan). Maybe those got lost in translation, or maybe "weird foreigner" stories are better without the full truth.
It's not hard to see how the bizarre then becomes the norm. And Chen, who is much savvier and more fame-driven than he's being portrayed, knows, this better than anyone.