NEW YORK, N.Y. - A business tycoon who bills himself as China's No. 1 philanthropist told reporters in New York that he has brought two women to the U.S. to undergo surgery for disfiguring burns they suffered when they set themselves on fire in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 2001.
Chen Guangbiao, who made his fortune in recycling, introduced the two women to U.S. and Chinese reporters at an unorthodox and sometimes tense news conference Tuesday at a hotel near Central Park.
Inside a hotel ballroom, Chen began by singing a song he wrote himself, which included the soaring lyric, "The whole world will witness my Chinese dream!"
Then he talked of having a plan to buy The New York Times. He has said the paper, which has published investigations into the enormous wealth amassed by the relatives of Chinese leaders, should be "more authentic and objective" in its coverage of China.
He also warned Americans not to trust the government of Japan, which is involved in a territorial dispute with China over several remote islands.
Finally, Chen had the two women display their horrific burns, which seared off their hands and left their faces masks of scarred flesh.
Outside in the cold, dozens of practitioners of the Falun Gong spiritual movement picketed the event, saying the two burn victims were propaganda tools of the Chinese government.
The women, Hao Huijun and her daughter Chen Guo, were among a group of people who set themselves on fire in the square amid the Chinese government's brutal crackdown on Falun Gong practitioners. One woman and her 12-year-old daughter died.
Months later, the survivors were paraded before reporters by Chinese authorities to denounce Falun Gong as a cult and say they had been deceived into a suicide attempt. The Tiananmen Square incident became the centerpiece of a campaign by Chinese authorities to justify oppression of Falun Gong practitioners.
In brief remarks to reporters in New York, Hao and Chen condemned Falun Gong again.
Some reporters for U.S.-based Chinese media asked the women whether they were actually government plants who staged the immolations to discredit the movement.
"The self-immolation was our own fault," Chen said, through a translator. "We acted on our own behaviour."
Chen said he planned to spend more than $2 million on medical care for the women and brought them to New York because doctors here had said they could restore the women to 80 per cent of their former appearance.
In China, Chen is known as much for his energetic efforts to publicize his charity activities as he is for his giving.
After the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Chen handed out cash to survivors, then posted photos of them on his website. Critics accused him of harming their dignity, while defenders said Chen's publicity efforts encouraged other wealthy Chinese to give.
Chen has no obvious ties to the ruling Communist Party, but some of his activities are politically tinged.
In 2011, he visited Taiwan and gave $344,000 to the poor on the street, according to Taiwanese media. The money was in envelopes that said "the Chinese people are one family," which some took as a call to reunite the self-ruled island with the communist mainland.
The same year, Chen flew to Japan to give 13 million yen ($150,000) for tsunami aid. According to the newspaper Yangtze Evening News, he travelled around the disaster area in vans draped in giant Chinese flags.