AT HIS first news conference as China’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao introduced himself to reporters packed into a cavernous room in the Great Hall of the People (as well as to a live television audience) with an unusual reference to his own family history. Chinese leaders normally hide behind the smokescreen of “collective leadership”, downplaying their own attributes. But Mr Wen waxed lyrical about his own upbringing: “I am a very ordinary person. I come from a family of teachers in the countryside. My grandfather, my father and my mother were all teachers. My childhood was spent in the turmoil of war. Our home was literally burnt down by the flame of war and so was the primary school, which my grandfather built with his own hands. The untold suffering in the days of old China left an indelible imprint on my tender mind.”
As a tour de force of investigative reporting by the New York Times now reveals, Mr Wen’s family circumstances have changed a lot since those days. It says that the prime minister’s relatives, including his wife, have controlled assets worth at least $2.7 billion. It notes that Mr Wen has “broad authority” over the major industries where his relatives have made their fortunes. Their business dealings have sometimes been hidden in ways that suggest the relatives are eager to avoid public scrutiny, says the report.
That family members of China’s most powerful politicians cash in on their connections comes as no surprise. Over the past two decades, as the country’s economy has ballooned, rumours and occasional bits of evidence of such behaviour have accumulated at a similar pace. In June Bloomberg shed remarkable light on the fortunes of relatives of Xi Jinping, the man who next month will be appointed general secretary of the Communist Party and, in March, president of China. Chinese officials were deeply unhappy with that report: Bloomberg’s entire website has been blocked in China ever since (as has the Analects story about the Bloomberg report). In the few hours since its exposé of Mr Wen’s family appeared, the New York Times’s website has been subjected to the same treatment (ironically, given Mr Wen’s avowed support for “people’s rights to stay informed about, participate in, express views on and oversee government affairs”: see his speech to the National People’s Congress (NPC), the country’s legislature, in March).
Mr Wen and his fellow leaders would prefer any public attention to the business dealings of the powerful to be focused on the family of Bo Xilai, the former party chief of Chongqing region in the south-west. Coincidentally, just after publication of the New York Times story, it was announced that Mr Bo had been expelled from the NPC. This was hardly a shock given that he had already been stripped of every other title, including last month his membership of the party. It prepares the way, however, for Mr Bo to be put on trial (NPC membership confers a token immunity from prosecution). This event will likely be staged some time in the next few months and will be the most sensational of its kind involving a deposed Chinese leader since the trial of the “Gang of Four” in 1980. Managing news coverage of it will be a huge challenge to the “collective leadership”. It will want to convince the public that Mr Bo and family members were engaged in egregious corruption (not least in order to block any possibility of a political comeback by the ambitious Mr Bo). But it will not want gossip to spread about the business affairs of other ruling families (squirrelling money abroad appears a national pastime, as we explain in our China section this week).
The man all but certain to succeed Mr Wen next March, his deputy, Li Keqiang, will be among those squirming. In a powerful report just published, Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, has exposed the prominent role of Li Keqiang’s younger brother, Li Keming, in the tobacco industry—even as Li Keqiang has been overseeing reform of the health sector. Airing such conflicts of interest is taboo in the Chinese press.
Our cover this week calls Mr Xi “The man who must change China”. Revelations such as those by the New York Times, Bloomberg and Brookings strengthen the case for this. As we argue in a leader, Mr Xi needs to venture deep into political reform, including setting a timetable for the direct election of government leaders as Deng Xiaoping once suggested should be possible. Our Banyan column explains why Chinese-style “meritocracy” is not enough to prevent the kind of abuses of power that are rife in China today. And in a three-page briefing we look at how Mr Xi is being assailed from all sides by demands for far-reaching change.
Oct 26th 2012, 6:28 by J.M. | BEIJING