June 25, 2014; New York Times

This is one story that is hard to read. Is it a parody? Is it a major cultural misunderstanding? Did Chinese multimillionaire Chen Guangbiao play a big joke on a couple of hundred homeless people in New York?

Earlier this week, Chen held his “Tour of Love and Gratitude” luncheon at the Loeb Boathouse in Central Park. The luncheon guests were some 200 to 250 homeless men and women. Supplied to the event by the New York Rescue Mission, they came not just for the gourmet lunch, but the promise of $300 in cash for every attendee. As part of the event and in return for supplying the homeless guests, the Rescue Mission cut a contract with Chen for a $90,000 donation, according to the New York Times.

Claiming that he wanted to help New York’s poor and “inspire a culture of philanthropy around the world,” Chen had advertised the lunch in a full page advertisement in the New York Times, promising lunch and $300 for “1,000 poor and destitute Americans.” Around the Internet, we’ve seen rates for a full-page ad in the Times run from about $70,000 (which is supposedly much below what the Times regularly charges) to as much as $175,000. If the ad were only 70 grand, that would have been equivalent to the cost of Chen’s giving more than 200 homeless people his $300 gifts.

At the event, there were speeches and magic tricks, the latter by Chen himself. Volunteers wearing green Chinese People’s Liberation Army military uniforms (with “Serve the People” logos on them) sang, and even Chen sang a karaoke version of “We Are the World.” But then, somehow, the money-distribution plan fell apart.

The Rescue Mission’s director of public relations, Michelle Tolson, said that the police wouldn’t permit Chen to hand out $300 per person. Somehow, however, the Rescue Mission negotiated a symbolic presentation of hundred dollar bills to a few of the participants, though they would then have to return the money. However, for the television cameras, the selected homeless posed with their $100 bills.

As the homeless participants protested being played for suckers, Chen then said he would head over to the Mission later in the day to hand out the money. Craig Mayes, the CEO of the Rescue Mission, popped up and immediately contradicted that and said that would be a “violation of the contract.” Did he mean the contract that gave the Mission the $90,000 in return for corralling the homeless to the luncheon? The Times article isn’t totally clear on that point, but it seems to be the contract in question.

After all of this chaos, with the police and security guards surrounding him in a phalanx against the angry homeless luncheon participants, Chen pronounced the event “extremely successful.” That is in fitting with his lack of humility. Chen’s business card describes him as “Most Influential Person of China, Most Prominent Philanthropist of China, China Moral Leader, China Earthquake Rescue Hero, Most Well-known and Beloved Chinese Role Model, Most Charismatic Philanthropist of China.”

A fraud? A publicity stunt? Whatever his motivations, that’s the result, that’s the feeling of the couple of hundred participants as well as the additional hundred homeless who were carted to the site but left outside. To us, this is abuse—abuse of poor people by a man who may be a philanthropist of some sort in China, but has perpetrated a moral crime on these homeless persons. Complicit, however, is the New York Rescue Mission. It seems to have gotten its contract with Chen at the cost of watching Chen play with the hopes and needs and expectations of New York City’s most vulnerable and poorest citizens.—Rick Cohen