Consider, if you will, the following scenario: Warren Buffett calls a press conference in New York. First, he sings karaoke. Then, for 10 minutes he offers his opinions on world affairs.
Finally, he explains why he called the conference: he is paying $2 million for the reconstructive surgery of two women, claiming to be former Christians, who set themselves on fire 13 years ago.
He brings out two badly disfigured women and takes the wrappings off their devastated, burnt faces. They proceed to vilify Christianity.
The journalists in attendance would be baffled and appalled: what is this man thinking? Yet a state-affiliated Chinese businessman held precisely that press event in New York Tuesday. Instead of Christianity, the women attacked Falun Gong, a spiritual practice persecuted in China. And it was all dutifully reported by straight-faced Western media outlets.
In China, it played out differently: the story was censored online. Allowing the press conference to be reported would have given new life to a faction the Party leadership is trying to put out of business.
The Chinese business executive who engineered the highly unorthodox press conference at the JW Marriott Essex House Hotel is named Chen Guangbiao. Among the pile of titles on his business card are “Most Well-known and Beloved Chinese Role Model” and “China’s Foremost Environmental Preservation Demolition Expert.”
A Friend of the Party
In other words, Chen is in the demolition business. He’s also in the recycling business. According to Chinese media reports, he has received a great deal of support from the Chinese Communist Party. An anecdote relayed in a news report on Sohu, a Chinese news portal, said that the mayor of Nanjing once awarded Chen 80 percent of the demolition work in that city after being impressed with his extremely generous philanthropic activity.
On the websites belonging to one of his companies, Chen can be seen giving repeated thanks and praise to the Communist Party. One circular encouraged study sessions on Marxist theory and socialism with Chinese characteristics. His company also hosted a “red song party,” where staff would sing revolutionary songs in praise of the communist regime.
Epoch Times reporters found all these anecdotes and more, plainly visible on his websites. But Western media reports—whether due to a lack of Chinese-language staff, or a lack of institutional knowledge of how wealth and power are inextricably blended in the People’s Republic of China—failed almost entirely to document Chen’s close Party ties.
Business Insider even allowed Chen to declare, unchallenged, “There is nothing related to the government. … Because of my high profile over the past few years, the government officials, the rich people, have not liked to interact with me.” But that’s not what the record shows on the Chinese-language Internet.
China Central Television
One of Chen’s more noteworthy demolition contracts was to take down in 2010 part of the North Building of the Cultural Center of CCTV, the state broadcaster, which had caught fire. Contracts with any state-connected institutions are known to be doled out to friends and allies in China, according to experts on how Chinese officialdom operates.
“Typically a businessman would need a very strong relationship to get a job doing demolition work for CCTV,” said Heng He, a political analyst with New Tang Dynasty Television, a primarily Chinese-language broadcaster based in New York.
People’s Daily, the Party’s official newspaper, ran an exclusive interview with Chen about the demolition work he was to undertake.
A decade previously the deputy director of CCTV was an official named Li Dongsheng. He held that position from 1993 to 2000, and spent most of the period working on a show called “Focus Talk.” It purports to take an investigative, “60 Minutes”-style, and directly follows the evening news.
In 2000, Li moved to his next job: deputy director of the Office of the Central Leading Group for Dealing With the Falun Gong Question. He was put in charge of propaganda. The Communist Party often establishes ad hoc committees, agencies, and leading small groups, with sweeping powers, to deal with pressing political issues.
From his new perch, Li began sharpening the propaganda that was being used to attack the Falun Gong spiritual practice. The group had been persecuted since 1999, but the campaign of vilification had not gained very much public traction.
Then, on Jan. 23, 2001, Chinese state media carried a flurry of reports that five (later revised to seven) practitioners of Falun Gong had set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square. Not in protest against the persecution—that might have inspired sympathy—but because they wanted to “enter Heaven.”
Falun Gong’s teachings forbid killing and suicide. Analysts pointed out numerous inconsistencies in the official reports, arguing that it was an elaborate setup used to incite hatred toward the practice.
The Chinese authorities “used it as a pretext to sanction the systematic use of violence and extrajudicial imprisonment against Falun Gong practitioners, leading to a surge in deaths due to torture and abuse in custody,” according to the Falun Dafa Information Center.
At his press conference in New York on Jan. 7, Chen Guangbiao said he had brought two burn victims from that incident, and that he was paying all that money for their reconstructive surgery. Given the hermetic information controls in China, there is of course no way to verify the claim that the scarred women he brought had anything to do with the immolation incident. It was nevertheless reported as fact in many Western media articles.
Chinese media reports that were written about the press conference were deleted from the Internet hours after they went live. QQ News, Twenty-First Century Business Herald, Observer, First Financial and others republished it, and all the articles were removed.
According to Heng He, this probably has to do with the fact that in late December, Li Dongsheng, the mastermind of the immolation incident and fierce propaganda that followed it, had been removed from his post and put under the Party’s disciplinary interrogation procedures. His political career is now over.
Chinese propaganda authorities swiftly stomped on the story because, according to Heng He, “it would have sent the wrong signal to people inside the Communist Party,” that the political faction that Li Dongsheng is associated with is making a comeback.
“It’s not that they want to do something good for Falun Gong,” he said, “but that they don’t want people to get the wrong impression about the political landscape.”