Savior or showman, saint or sinner?

Updated: 2014-06-28 06:51

By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)

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Of course, nobody is saying Chen does not have the right to spend his money any way he sees fit.

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Apart from seeking the spotlight, his form of charity carries the psychological satisfaction that many Chinese are now richer and can view the US for what it truly is, a paper tiger to borrow Mao Zedong's term.

There is a not-so-subtle undertone of schadenfreude, too, which taps into the mentality of some of his compatriots, but about which most of his American recipients of his largess probably couldn't care less.

Charity, like business dealings, should operate under business principles: just as you want to reap the largest profit from an investment, you should want to help those most in need of help when you give away your money.

It could be argued that Chen does not set out to help those Americans who need help the most, but rather those who are most visible, and by extension his act of helping will be most visible.

In marketing terms, his form of charity does make sense. However, Chen, who made his first fortune from selling medical equipment and is now into renewables and the recycling business, never appears to want coattail benefits for his highly profitable businesses from his charity work.

Most Chinese are unaware what line of business he is in. All they know is he is deeply into flaunting his wealth, at a time when most business leaders would rather shy away from such exposure for fear of inviting unwanted attention.

Chen may be a maverick in his philanthropy, but he is by no means the first.

In days gone by, the wealthy would offer free porridge by the roadside - a small but random act of kindness toward strangers, mostly very poor travelers and rickshaw drivers.

More recently, businesses have chosen to show off enlarged cheques at television fund-raisers for such tragedies as the Sichuan earthquake - very obvious displays of charity that make me squirm, but which don't seem to bother many others.

There is a positive side to charity showmanship in that it encourages others to do the same. But on the flipside, it does show many people that a divide still exists between the wealthy and the disadvantaged.