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China blocks NYT after Wen ‘expose’

Ananth Krishnan
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Wen Jiabao
Wen Jiabao

China on Friday accused The New York Times newspaper of smearing the government and blocked the American newspaper’s websites, after it published an investigative report saying the assets of the relatives of Premier Wen Jiabao amounted to more than $ 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 NYT 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 $2 billion 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. The Premier is thought to be on an annual salary in the range of $ 20,000.

The article pointed to serious conflicts of interest between the decisions Mr. Wen took as the head of the State Council or Cabinet since 2002 and the assets held by his relatives in companies that benefited from those decisions. 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 $ 2.2 billion in the company as of 2007.

With the newspaper’s websites blocked and censors scrubbing any references to the article on Chinese microblogging 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 Communist Party’s nine-member Politburo Standing Committee at the November 8 Party Congress. Mr. Wen, throughout his decade-long tenure as Premier, has been particularly mindful of his legacy, repeatedly calling for political reforms — though he had little success in pushing them forward — and social equality.

Even prior to the publishing of the NYT 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, though they regularly publish corruption stories related to local-level officials.

In an apparent reference to the speculation, Mr. Wen had said in March that 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.”


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