I remember when Wen Jiabao first became prime minister. There were such high hopes, and they’ve never really abated: Wen has always been seen as “the good CCP leader.” As if by magic, he was always on the scene as tragedies struck, be they earthquakes or floods or winter storms in Guangzhou at Chinese New Year time or high-speed rail crashes. And there was something genuine about the Man of the People, the one who cared about China’s disenfranchised. And maybe he really does care. He would have to be a damned good actor if he didn’t.
But whether he cares or not, it still looks like there’s a dark side to his story. Today China blocked the NY Times after it delivered a bombshell story: Wen’s family members have made billions — yes, billions — of dollars through investments in family ventures and the awarding of contracts. Needless to say, something doesn’t smell right here. Is it conceivable that Wen simply didn’t know, or that he knew and was disgusted by the corruption but felt powerless to control it?
Many relatives of Wen Jiabao, including his son, daughter, younger brother and brother-in-law, have become extraordinarily wealthy during his leadership, an investigation by The New York Times shows. A review of corporate and regulatory records indicates that the prime minister’s relatives, some of whom have a knack for aggressive deal-making, including his wife, have controlled assets worth at least $2.7 billion.
In many cases, the names of the relatives have been hidden behind layers of partnerships and investment vehicles involving friends, work colleagues and business partners. Untangling their financial holdings provides an unusually detailed look at how politically connected people have profited from being at the intersection of government and business as state influence and private wealth converge in China’s fast-growing economy.
Unlike most new businesses in China, the family’s ventures sometimes received financial backing from state-owned companies, including China Mobile, one of the country’s biggest phone operators, the documents show. At other times, the ventures won support from some of Asia’s richest tycoons. The Times found that Mr. Wen’s relatives accumulated shares in banks, jewelers, tourist resorts, telecommunications companies and infrastructure projects, sometimes by using offshore entities.
There was something so simply good about Wen (or the way the media portrayed him), almost saintly. He was, ironically, a crusader against corruption and he was always positioned as the one who had “the people’s interests” at heart. This story delivers a crushing blow to such a carefully crafted image. Either Wen was implausibly ignorant or implausibly impotent, unable to stop his family from exploiting his position.
This is a remarkable story. It is one of the best-researched stories on China I’ve ever seen. It is exhaustive, and by simply relaying the facts it is utterly devastating. This is Pulitzer material, and I don’t say that very often. No wonder the NY Times is blocked in China today. I would be shocked if it weren’t.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.