Chinese Character

The world’s craziest idea?

Meet the Chinese business tycoon who is selling thin air

The world’s craziest idea?

Chen Guangbiao: canning air in Tibet to sell to those choking on smog in Beijing

“You can tell a lot about a place from a dinner party,” began a report on American radio show Marketplace. “In LA the banter around the table gravitates around traffic. In DC it’s beltway politics. And in Beijing and Shanghai more and more people are asking each other ‘What sort of air filter do you have?’”

The recent spike in air pollution across China has seen an accompanying surge in sales of air purifiers too. Speaking to Marketplace, the head of sales at IQAir’s in China commented the top-of-the-line Swiss machines have sold out with orders now facing a two week backlog.

Sales of less expensive purifiers made by Suzhou Beiang Technology have also risen dramatically. So much so that its website posted a notice in late January stating that owing to “blowout demand” the firm’s “inventory is far unable to meet the needs of everyone and our factory is working overtime”.

These are among a host of companies now benefiting from the nation’s air quality crisis. But insofar as any one individual can be said to have benefited from the problem, most Chinese journalists would name Chen Guangbiao.

He grabbed the headlines on January 30 when he started giving out cans of fresh air in Beijing’s financial district. The air comes in a variety of flavours, depending on where it is captured, with Pristine Tibet proving particularly popular among the capital’s choking residents.

“Open it and drink it and breathe it,” Chen told passers-by. “It keeps you fresh all day.”

Chen was giving out the cans free that day – as an act of charity to Beijingers suffering from high levels of smog and hazardous PM2.5 counts. It was a ‘photo opp’ readily picked up by local media. However, in doing so journalists gave the millionaire environmentalist credit for his foresight: he has long been warning that air pollution levels would reach a crisis point.

In fact, his very idea of canning fresh air and selling it was hatched last year to raise awareness of the problem. The entrepreneur shocked his peers when he announced he would sell pure air for Rmb5 ($0.80) a can, giving the proceeds to charitable causes. At the time of the launch he told Sina News: “Every day, we are inhaling the exhaust fumes of cars. And now we have pollution-free air to sell – a benefit to everyone’s health and longevity.”

According to Want China Times, Chen sold “more than 8 million cans” in 10 days, which is both an extraordinary indictment of Chinese air and a seeming vindication of a zany business case (you might remember WiC’s April Fools’ Day issue in 2011, and our fictional prank story which was about a Chinese businessman bottling Scottish highland air and selling it in Beijing: see issue 101).

Chen , who was born in Sihong in Jiangsu province in 1968, has never fitted the stereotype of the typical Chinese tycoon. For a start he’s never been obsessed with making money, giving half of his unlisted firm’s profits to charity. As he told Western China Metropolis Daily: “Had I not donated money to charity, I’d probably have a net worth that would put me in the top 10 of the China Rich List. But now I am not really considered rich. I probably rank outside the top 100,000 in the Rich List!”

(He is estimated to be worth $740 million by the Hurun Rich List.)

According to his firm’s website, Chen has donated Rmb1.34 billion to charitable causes over the years, directly helping around 700,000 people. For example, when he saw a TV show about the poor quality of schools in Qinghai in 2006, he donated 46 primary schools. The government’s Central Civilisation Office has even named him a ‘National Moral Model’. He puts his philanthropy down to the influence of his mother. Though the family was poor, she always invited passing beggars to share meals.

Then again, the family’s poverty also encouraged Chen to come up with business schemes. When he was just nine he spent his summer holiday selling cold water in the street; earning Rmb4 during the vacation. It may not sound a lot, but the cost of his school tuition at the time was Rmb1.8. His next scheme involved purchasing grain in his village and carting it to a nearby town to sell at a profit. By the time he graduated he’d saved Rmb13,700.

He used this profit to buy a used ambulance for Rmb8,000 which he converted into a minibus. Family relatives helped out – selling tickets to passengers – and soon he was clearing Rmb10,000 per year.

As he expanded into trading, he recalled there were setbacks – for example, being cheated. When he was just 20 he recalls a bulk purchase of shoes made in Wenzhou, which he bought for Rmb6 a pair and hoped to sell for Rmb8. However, it turned out the soles of the shoes were made of paper, as revealed when it rained; leading to customer complaints. “I lost tens of thousands of yuan that time,” rues Chen.

His current business is called China Huangpu Renewable Resources Utilisation Group, or China Huangpu for short. He entered the recycling business in 2003 – specialising in the demolition and recycling of scrap metals in old industrial plants and power stations. Another aim: to recycle profits. In this case Chen wanted around half of them to go to charitable causes (in 2009 and 2010, for example, his firm donated Rmb300 million).

That made Chen an early advocate of the ‘green economy’. And indeed in his role as a delegate to the CPPCC, a body that advises China’s parliament, his many proposals have focused on the eco theme. He’s proposed an environment-protection tax; called for uniform standards for electric chargers (why does every device need a different one?) and suggested legislation to control the burning of straw in the countryside. He also advocates hiking petrol prices by 50% as a means to reduce consumption and pollution.

There were some in the local media who called Chen a showman, and said his good deeds were just meant to gain him and his firm publicity. He rejects that assessment, telling Western China Metropolis Daily: “I do not think I am putting on a show, and even if it is a show, I am doing it with real money. Society needs such behaviour to prompt more people to do good deeds.”

(Those who criticised him as a self-publicist noted his cans of air carry the words “Chen Guangbiao: good man”.)

Anyway, in the wake of the recent smog in Beijing (and across China, see WiC178), the media has swung round to support the millionaire. He is praised for having been ahead of the curve in warning about air pollution and how bad things could get. Media and netizens are happy to cast him now as a heroic voice of reason, while heaping blame and criticism on state behemoths like Sinopec (see WiC181).

Chen’s personal image has also grabbed the attention of reporters as a welcome contrast to the perceived venality of the nation’s baijiu-swilling, banquet-bloated corrupt cadres. For example, Chen claims he and his family live a thrifty life (“my wife has no jewellery”) and eat a vegetarian diet because it is more environmentally friendly.

Asked about his biggest shortcoming, he ponders the question, and responds: “I’m too outspoken – I often offend people. I like to tell the truth…” His 4 million followers on Sina Weibo obviously like this trait.

Keeping track: tycoon Chen Guangbiao made headlines last year when he sold cans of “fresh air” in heavily polluted Beijing (see WiC183). But the businessman – founder of recycling giant Huangpu Recycling Resources – is in the news again over talk of buying a $1 billion stake in the New York Times in an effort to “rebuild its credibility and influence” by reforming the newspaper’s coverage of China, he told the Global Times in late December (“please don’t take it as a joke,” Chen warns).

Investors took Chen quite seriously. His disclosure sent the New York Times Company’s stocks up 4% to a five-year high of $16.09 the day he made the announcement.

But this Tuesday he told Forbes that the deal is now off: his premature announcement and the ensuing media attention had angered some shareholders, said Chen. No worries, the attention-seeking millionaire told TV station Sinovision. He plans to give Rupert Murdoch a call soon. “I am going to talk to the Wall Street Journal and find out if it’s for sale,” he said in the interview. (Jan 10, 2014)

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