When the New York Times published a lengthy exposé on the extent of Premier Wen Jiabao's family's wealth, there were certainly mixed reactions. On the one hand, many Chinese knew that one had to be partly corrupt to thrive in China's opaque and often obtuse political system. On the other hand, Wen was considered to be most prominent crusader against corruption within the government, openly urging China's leaders to reveal the assets of their immediate family members. However, the article states that "eighty percent of the $2.7 billion in assets" were owned by Wen Jiabao's "mother, his younger brother, two brothers-in-law, a sister-in-law, daughter-in-law and the parents of his son’s wife, none of who is subject to party disclosure rules."
This release comes at a sensitive time when the fallen politician Bo Xilai is set to be tried and right before the 18th National People's Congress on November 8, when the country's leadership transition will take place. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Chinese censors blocked access to the English and Chinese versions of the Times soon after the article was published. The article could also diminish Wen's political reputation and weaken his influence once he steps down from public office. Two lawyers for the Wen family say that the Times report was "untrue" and that the family members "have not conducted any illegal business activities." In response, the Times issued a statement claiming that it did not allege that Wen Jiabao engaged in any misconduct or attempted to influence the investments of his extended family, but notes that "as prime minister in a country where the state plays a large role in the economy, Mr. Wen oversaw many government officials whose decisions could play a large role in the fortunes of businesses and investors."
The Chinese online community has had mixed reactions to this exposition. Some on the popular Sina Weibo — the country's counterpart of Twitter, among others — think that The New York Times may have been manipulated by the conservative powers in China. One user said, "What position is the New York Times taking? Have they been bought out by the supporters of Mao?” Another asserts, "“This time NYT really does not understand China – too much of a puppet.” Others are not surprised. "It doesn’t matter if these disclosures are true, I don’t expect high officials in the CCP [the Chinese Communist Party] to be clean anyway. I just hope that the liberals and the reformers can start real political reforms."
The fact that Wen Jiabao's family is extremely wealthy sheds light on the extent to which business and government in China is intertwined. The offspring of political elites are known as "princelings" because they use their relatives' political reputation to acquire important government positions and secure advantages for high-stakes investments in some of China's most important industries. Since it is almost impossible to do business in China without the approval of the government, many try to ingratiate themselves with these princelings by hiring them as consultants or engaging them as joint venture partners. However, this attempt to win the princelings' favor is not limited to domestic Chinese companies. In a July report from The Financial Times, a specialist in elite Chinese politics claims "most major foreign companies are trying to hire the offspring of Chinese officials so they can get access and do business." The report also notes that princelings hold stakes in joint ventures through a holding company in Hong Kong or the Caribbean, far from the jurisdiction of anti-corruption investigators. This accumulation of massive wealth for the politically elite and their families reflects the widening incoming disparity that is one of the worst among the world's large economies.
The implications of the Times article may not actually affect the political transition at the upcoming National People's Congress, but the responses from China's online community reflect a long-held awareness of and antipathy toward official corruption, and all-around surprise at the immensity of Wen's fortune despite his low government salary and popular appeal as a reformer for the people.