China's canned air mogul Chen Guangbiao has a little Mao complex: The SinoFile
A Chinese state-sanctioned environmentalist is selling air in soda cans, attempting to highlight environmental issues at a time when they are already on the agenda -- this week Beijing pollution continued to reach hazardous highs and questions of public health are abuzz on social media.
Well-known philanthropist Chen Guangbiao, 44, is marketing his cans of air from purer parts of the Greater China Region, such as Tibet, to city-dwellers at five yuan ($.80) a piece.
Around eight million of the cans have been sold in the last 10 days, reports say.
The cans' labels say a lot about Mr. Chen, a self-professed philanthropist and recycling mogul – the 339th richest man in China, with assets amounting to US$740 million in 2012, according to country's Hurun Report Richest list.
On each of Chen's servings of pure oxygen are a socialist abstract portrait of his own face in a sun, above the phrase “Chen Guangbiao is a good man.”
'Chen Guangbiao is a good man' -- The logo on his cans of air (Sina Weibo)
Look a little familiar? Here's a Cultural Revolution-era propaganda poster with a similar depiction of Chairman Mao Zedong, above a sign reading, “Mao is the red sun in our hearts.”
Chen Guangbiao may just have a little Mao complex.
Also like Mao, Chen is eager to wage a little war with Japan. You may know Chen from his controversial ad in The New York Times, which promoted China's stance in the ongoing territorial dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. The ad featured, on the top right hand corner, a large picture of Chen's face.
Photo from The Shanghaiist blog
And like Chairman Mao, who famously penned and carried around his own Little Red Book, Chen is rather fond of his own words.
“'Tis much greater to live as a popularly respected philanthropist than to die alone as a miser – Chen Guangbiao,” reads a quote on his Facebook page.
The page is a treasure trove of other telling tidbits on the chairman of Jiangsu Huangpu Recycling Resources, a company that bills itself as “China's kindest” and on its Web site, features a slideshow – set to melodramatic music -- with images of Chen surrounded by Western ethnic minorities, wearing the kind of Orientalist outfits they are often made to wear in public events that downplay ethnic tensions.
Chen's only interest: “philanthropy”
Chen has only 'liked' six pages on Facebook: China (the country), Mao Zedong, Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao. Xi Jinping – the past, present and future of authority in the People's Republic.
Strangely enough, the sixth like is Lin Biao, who helped devise and orchestrate the Cultural Revolution and is thought to have attempted to oust Mao in a failed coup d'etat.
Ironically enough, Facebook is blocked in China, so Chen likely accessed the US-based social media service with the help of an illegal VPN server to, essentially, jump over Beijing's Great Firewall and onto a Web site authorities worry has the potential to mobilize dissidents.
But Mao was also a man of many contradictions.
Chinese state-owned media is lapping Chen's latest business venture up, well, like a can of air.
In the past, The Global Times has said that Chen is "known (...) for his bombastic self-promotion” – He recently smashed motorbikes with a giant mallet for environmental awareness before countless cameras.
But the publication's reporters have recently written a series of articles lauding the air cans as “ingenious.”
Beijing has not restricted public discourse on this latest bout with air pollution. Gestures like Chen's are entirely welcome. But a state-sanctioned environmentalist, promoting awareness and protectionism is a bit odd now, given that late last year, Liu Futang, 65, was facing five years in prison for illegally publishing books on the degradation of the ecosystem in Hainan, an island off China's southern coast.
Perhaps Chen is leveraging the credit he has gained as a staunch patriot to actively address China's issues with clean air. Perhaps China is endorsing Chen and an open discourse on air pollution, because as drastically as Beijing can reshift its own public discourse, it can't tell Beijingers the sky is blue.
What we do know about Chen and his cans for certain: They are proof that environmentalism and economic gain aren't always mutually exclusive.