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China's oddball demolition king eyes the New York Times

A woman exits the New York Times Building in New York August 14, 2013. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
A woman exits the New York Times Building in New York August 14, 2013. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

By Megha Rajagopalan

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chen Guangbiao has never acquired a company.

The 45-year-old recycling magnate has also never worked in the media industry or become proficient in English.

But these facts have failed to puncture the preternatural bubble of confidence surrounding the controversial Chinese entrepreneur, who has his sights set on what he has deemed the world's most influential news outlet: the New York Times Co.

To be sure, it is unlikely that the Times, which is controlled by the venerable Ochs-Sulzberger clan, would sell to Chen, an oddball tycoon and philanthropist known more for his publicity stunts than his business acumen.

Undaunted, Chen said in a phone interview on Friday that he had retained a financial services firm that, along with its in-house lawyers, would assist him in his bid to acquire the Times.

"I've already spoken extensively with their lawyers the last time I visited the United States," he said, adding that the U.S. firm did not want to be identified.

He has said he will meet with a "leading shareholder" of the Times for dinner on Sunday evening to talk over his offer of $1 billion. The Times current market value is $2.4 billion.

A spokeswoman for the Times said she "had no information about any such meeting".

Hurun's Rich List of China's super-wealthy said Chen was worth about $740 million in 2012.

He said he had coaxed a wealthy Hong Kong financier, who also asked Chen to keep him anonymous, to chip in $600 million while he would pay the rest.

On Friday, he described the financier as "Jewish American," saying he worked in finance in Hong Kong and spoke fluent Chinese. The financier had previously completed two acquisition deals with U.S. media outlets, Chen said, declining to name them, though he added neither is as big as the Times.

"A GRUDGING RESPECT"

Little is known about the privately held demolition giant that won Chen his fortune - Jiangsu Huangpu Recycling Resources. Its central business is tearing down buildings and bridges and recycling their remains.

What gets more attention is Chen's donations to charitable causes, and more often, his flamboyant antics in the name of philanthropy and environmentalism.

"There is nobody else like Chen Guangbiao in the charity world," said Rupert Hoogewerf, publisher of the Hurun Rich List, which tracks China's super-wealthy. "The image he's got in China is that of a showman, but there's a grudging respect for the fact that he's doing charity nonetheless."

Chen grew up in a rural village in eastern Jiangsu province, known for its sweltering summers and freezing winters, in an extremely poor family.

"His home village was a very poor place, and they suffered a lot when he was young," said Hu Xi, a college student and family friend. "His neighbors, who saw him grow up, believe his persona is completely genuine."

Two of his siblings starved to death when he was four. Chen completed high school, working during the summers to pay his tuition, and went on to study Chinese medicine in the provincial capital before starting down the path of entrepreneurship.

Now that he's made it, the self-styled eco-activist is not afraid to show off his wealth.

He often releases photos of himself posing between walls of red 100-yuan notes, and frequently invites media to witness gimmicks promoting various causes.

Last January, for instance, he gave out cans of "fresh air" to people on the street during a particularly murky bout of pollution. He also claims to have changed his two children's names to "environmental protection" and "environment".

But in a country with a rapidly growing wealth gap, where few in the upper class make philanthropy a priority, Chen has earned plaudits for pledging to donate his fortune to charity after he dies.

Alvin Lim, a Singapore-based blogger and social media manager, recalled that Chen handed out a U.S. $100 bill to an elderly women selling packets of tissues when he breakfasted with Chen at a local food court.

"I don't know if it's genuine or just for show, but in the end it's for a good cause," Lim said.

(Reporting By Megha Rajagopalan, additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Neil Fullick)

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