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Revelations of vast fortune held by Chinese leader's family may hurt Communist Party image

China Daily via Reuters, file

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao shakes hands with local workers in earthquake-hit Mianzhu, Sichuan province in this Jan. 25, 2009 file photo.

BEIJING – When news broke earlier this year that the family of disgraced Chongqing party boss, Bo Xilai, had amassed $160 million in ill-gotten earnings, the story was seen as a proverbial pin in the balloon China’s ruling Communist Party has long floated to its people about its leadership.

In China the storyline went something like this: local-level officials could be and have been corrupted. But China’s highest leaders were incorruptible, pious men who were sympathetic to the plight of the country’s citizenry.

Bo’s corruption and the transgressions of his inner circle have been very publicly renounced by the Communist Party. His wife, Gu Kailai, was found guilty of the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood while his former deputy police chief, Wang Lijun, was jailed and held up as a traitor after his now infamous flight to the American Consulate in Chengdu this past winter.

News Friday that Bo had been stripped of his last party title appears to pave the way for a convenient resolution of the scandal before a critical once-in-a-decade leadership changeover on Nov. 8 at the 18th Communist Party Congress.

But the revelation in Friday’s New York Times that the family of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao controlled assets of at least $2.7 billion dollars posed a grave threat to the Party’s preferred narrative of being the honest broker that brings prosperity to all.

NYT report: China leader Wen Jiabao's family has amassed billions in assets since '98

So much so that Beijing was forced Friday to kick the censorship gears up a notch, blocking the English- and Chinese-language websites of the New York Times, blacking out mentions of the story on independent cable news channels carried in China, and censoring the names of Wen’s family and other mentions of the story on China’s Internet.     

At a Foreign Ministry briefing Friday, a spokesman gruffly stated that the Times’ report "blackens China's name and has ulterior motives." When asked why the paper’s website was being censored, he said, "China manages the Internet in accordance with laws and rules."

One piece of information not censored, however is a report released Thursday by the research group, Global Financial Integrity, which estimated $3.7 trillion dollars had been pilfered and smuggled out of China from 2000 through 2011.

The report also estimated that $472 billion -- or 8.3 percent of China’s 2011 gross domestic product -- had been stolen last year alone.

Just how guilty Wen is in his family’s nationwide money grab is up for debate. As the Times’ report noted, a 2007 diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks quoted an executive who noted that the premier was aware of his family’s lucrative business ventures: “Wen is disgusted with his family's activities, but is either unable or unwilling to curtail them."

Wen’s failure to reign in his family’s financial activities threatens to undermine the carefully scripted public persona he has cultivated over the years.

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A click-through history of modern relations between the United States and China.

Nicknamed “Grandpa Wen” by state media, the premier has relished opportunities to be photographed connecting with members of rural communities and blue-collar workers. During the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, he was a near-daily presence in news reports about the disaster and government rescue and recovery efforts.

He has also been dogged in his calls for economic reform and greater income equality. At this year’s National People’s Congress, during what was likely his last major press conference in a 45-year-long political career, Wen called for reform.

“Even with a single breath left, I am ready to dedicate myself fully to the cause of China’s reform,” he was quoted as saying.

Although Wen was speaking months before the release of the Times piece, he still apparently felt the need to address whispers about relatives trading on the family name. “I have never pursued personal gain,” declared Wen, before adding, “History will have the final say.”

Communist Party officials hope to control the writing of history. But the institution is starting to feel the strain of having to push an ever heavier stone uphill. The Internet has made information more widely available than ever before on the mainland; what censors just 10 years ago could make disappear – sometimes literally -- has become more problematic today.

Still, while completely squashing a story in China seems to no longer be possible, it may not be Beijing’s intention or even in its best interest to stifle information. Some Chinese have found ways to circumvent the Great Firewall, while millions have gone abroad, where they have been exposed to the world beyond. Allowing them the safety valve of relatively free information does not pose an immediate threat to Party rule for now.

That’s because the vast majority of China’s population appears to be apolitical, disinterested in or unwilling to engage in any meaningful political discourse. This situation is changing, quickly at times.

For now, however, the censorship of unpalatable stories is an effective albeit cumbersome tool for the Party to wield.

As for the New York Times, its fate in China looks dim. Just two months ago, Bloomberg ran a similar story that showed how the family of China’s likely future president, Xi Jinping, had also accumulated a vast business fortune – though unlike Wen’s kin, Xi’s immediate family did not appear to be reaping the same economic benefits.

Bloomberg’s website has since been blocked on the mainland. 

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