China on Friday accused the New York Times of smearing the government and blocked the American newspaper’s websites, after it published an investigative report detailing that the assets of the relatives of Premier Wen Jiabao amounted to more than US$ 2.7 billion (Rs. 14,450 crore).
The Foreign Ministry said the report “blackens China’s name and has ulterior motives”, hours after authorities blocked the English and newly-launched Chinese-language websites of the newspaper, which published the article early on Friday.
The report, which the New York Times said was based on a detailed review of company and regulatory filings, said a number of Mr. Wen’s relatives, from his mother and younger brother to his son and brother-in-law, held assets worth more than US$ 2 billion, in companies in sectors ranging from insurance and construction to real estate.
While the article said none of the holdings were in Mr. Wen’s name and there was no direct evidence of his role in promoting his relatives, it was apparent that their wealth soared as Mr. Wen climbed party ranks to the post of Premier. His relatives held a fortune in excess of US$ 2.7 billion; the Premier is thought to be on an annual salary in the range of US$ 20,000.
Mr. Wen, who has served as the head of the State Council or Cabinet since 2002, is the top official in charge of economic affairs. The article pointed to serious conflicts of interest between the decisions he took as an official in charge of economic regulations and the assets held by his relatives in companies that benefited from reforms.
For instance, it claimed his relatives had bought a stake in the Ping An insurance company before it was floated on the stock market, and had garnered a share of US$ 2.2 billion in the company as of 2007.
With the newspaper’s websites blocked in China and censors scrubbing any references to the article on Chinese micro-blogging sites, it remains unlikely that people in China – besides the few hundred thousand who use software to scale censorship restrictions – would have seen the report on Friday.
The timing of the report is, nevertheless, damaging for Mr. Wen, who will step down from the party’s nine-member Politburo Standing Committee at the November 8 Party Congress. Mr. Wen, through his decade-long tenure as Premier, has been particularly mindful of his legacy, voicing repeated calls for political reforms – although he had little success in pushing these forward – and social equality. Known as "Grandpa Wen", he is perhaps China's most popular politician, seen by many Chinese as being more open than his colleagues, particularly after he travelled to Sichuan in the wake of the devastating earthquake in 2008.
He has, however, attracted many detractors from across the political spectrum. The former Premier Zhu Rongji, who championed market reforms, is known to be strongly critical of Mr. Wen’s handling of the economy. Mr. Wen has, ironically, also angered those on the Left, particularly after he led the charge against the populist former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, who was expelled from the party last month. Mr. Wen publicly criticised Mr. Bo during his annual interaction with journalists in March, accusing him of violating the party’s consensus by seeking to revive neo-Maoist ideas.
Even prior to the publishing of the New York Times report, political circles in Beijing have long speculated on the wealth of Mr. Wen’s wife, Zhang Beili, who works in the jewellery trade. Media in China are, however, not allowed to publish stories critical of the Central leadership, although they regularly publish corruption stories related to local-level officials. In an apparent reference to the speculation, Mr. Wen, at the same March press conference, said he would leave office “with the courage to face history”. “There are people who will appreciate what I have done but there are also people who will criticise me,” he said. “Ultimately, history will have the final say.”
Some Chinese journalists reacted to Friday’s report suggesting it might be seen as being related to factional politics, although there is no evidence to suggest this was the case. Bloomberg News earlier carried reports detailing the fortunes of the families of Mr. Bo and Xi Jinping, Hu Jintao’s anointed successor. “Even if it is not true, some people will see this as a response to the Bo Xilai article and wonder if interested parties were involved in some way," one journalist speculated.
New York Times said it had painstakingly prepared the report by poring through company and regulator filings, though it added that in many instances "the names of the relatives have been hidden behind layers of partnerships and investment vehicles involving friends, work colleagues and business partners". "In the senior leadership, there’s no family that doesn’t have these problems," a former government colleague of Mr. Wen's told the newspaper. “His enemies are intentionally trying to smear him by letting this leak out."
This article has been corrected for an editing error.