HSINCHU, Taiwan (AFP) ― China’s most famous philanthropist began distributing cash in Taiwan on Thursday, the first day of a controversial trip that has sparked criticism and protests from anti-China groups.
Chen Guangbiao, who made his fortune recycling construction materials, handed T$7 million ($241,000) to charity groups in Hsinchu county in the island’s north, amid accusations he was promoting reunification with China.
“I don’t know anything about propaganda for Chinese reunification. I only know about charity and environmental work. I just want to do good,” 42-year-old Chen told AFP.
China and Taiwan have been separated for more than 60 years, but Beijing considers the island part of its territory and has vowed to get it back, increasingly by trying to win the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese population.
Chen Guangbiao speaks as his charity trip starts in Hsinchu, Taiwan, Jan. 27. (Xinhua-Yonhap News)
Chen’s trip has stirred excitement, with one tearful woman saying she had traveled from Taipei to Hsinchu to ask for money to pay for her husband’s funeral. She was stopped by police before getting near the mainland visitor.
Earlier in Taipei Chen, who is well-known in China for his flamboyant style of charity, held up a wad of T$2,000 notes spread out in a fan shape, surrounded by a crowd of photographers and cameramen.
However, his visit has also triggered considerable anger among some Taiwanese, with one commentator launching a diatribe during a talk show which Chen took part in via a telephone link.
A county government volunteer helping keep order in Hsinchu, where the funds are being distributed, described Chen’s visit as “a propaganda ploy for reunification and a waste of time.”
According to William Niu, a political scientist at the Chinese Culture University in Taipei, the mixed reactions to Chen’s visit reveal deep-rooted cultural differences between the two sides.
“Taiwanese are more discreet when carrying out charitable acts,” he told AFP.
“It’s also a face issue as by giving out money the Chinese show that they are richer now and are above us, so Chen is not welcome in some cities.”
Earlier in the day, Chen handed three traditional “red envelopes” containing a total of T$70,000 ($2,300) to a woman who had been waiting for him at his hotel in Taipei.
“I’ve never counted so many banknotes. I don’t know what to do. I will use the money to take care of my 88-year-old mother,” the woman told reporters, her voice cracking with emotion.
His visit was not widely reported in the Chinese media, with state-controlled Xinhua news agency and others mainly quoting the Taiwanese press.
Leading a group of businessmen from China, Chen arrived in Taipei late Wednesday.
“I will deliver every penny that I’ve promised... and I hope to come every year,” the tycoon told reporters at the airport.
Chen has said that he planned to give away more than $15 million to the poor in Taiwan.
Taiwan is five times wealthier than China in terms of gross domestic product per capita, even though the mainland’s economy is more than 10 times larger than its neighbor’s.