This is a guest post by Rachel Lu, co-founder and editor of Tea Leaf Nation, an online magazine that analyzes Chinese social media; a version of this article is also appearing on Tea Leaf Nation.
Thursday Oct 26 The New York Times published
a 4,700 word article on corruption among the members of Wen Jiabao's family,
alleging that they amassed a fortune of $2.7 billion through shadowy business
dealings. Appearing on the front page of both New York Times' English and Chinese websites, both
sites were completely blocked in China within hours. Prior to the article's
publication, the New York Times website was accessible from within China's
Great Firewall of censorship, although selected articles had been blocked from
time to time. "After reading New
York Times' bombshell, I felt chills down my spine. I really hope none of
it is real," a Chinese social media user commented.
Wen article spread by word of mouth on China's social media, with users sharing
screenshots, picture files or a brief summary in coded references. A typical
exchange among friends went like this:
A: NY Times,
a new tycoon in China. 2.7 billion U.S. dollars.
it my mother?
Haha, no. It is the "best actor" not to be named.
actor? Which one?
Somebody up there named Wen.
hours of the article's publication at 4:34
AM in China, social media censors also shifted into high gear, deleting
tweets and posts containing mentions of the article and blocking new search
terms. In early morning China time, a search for "NYT" on Sina Weibo,
one of China's most popular microblogging services, yielded more than 185,000
results, many mentioning the Wen article, but by late morning, that search term
was blocked entirely. Other phrases, such as "New York Times" and
"2.7 billion" (27?) are also blocked.
Well-known code words for Wen such as Grandpa Wen (???) or Best Actor (??) had already been blocked before the
expressed surprise, shock and disappointment at Wen, finding it hard to believe
that "the People's Premier," who appears on newscasts in an old coat
visiting the poor and downtrodden, would allow his family to amass such an
astronomical sum. "In this day and age, no official is clean and I can
accept that, but they shouldn't treat us like we are stupid. They fill up on
abalone and lobsters in a five-star hotel, and then go to crowded street
markets to buy cheap vegetables just to put on a show! I can't take
about Wen's wife and son using his influence to make money have been around for
years, but the New York Times article
both validates the rumors and puts a dollar figure. "The number is so
large, I have no idea what that even means," wrote one commentator on Sina Weibo. "Just glanced at it, and I was
completely blown away!!!! This is not just corruption, this is a black
hole!!!" wrote another. Another also wrote on Weibo in utter disbelief, "The premier
looks so kind and caring about the average people. How is it possible that he
has got 2.7 billion USD!!!"
article does not directly accuse Wen himself of any wrongdoing, only that his
family members used his influence, or the impression of his influence, to
secure sweetheart deals. Still, the article's implications are incongruous with
Wen's frequent public
tirades against corruptionwithin the Chinese Communist Party.
One user posted on Weibo, "I don't believe Wen has no knowledge of the
$120 million sitting in his mother's account." Another wondered, "The
article mentions that he is not happy about his family's dealings but unwilling
or unable to stop them--although that's not evidence of his guilt, how can he
fight corruption in the whole system if he cannot stop corruption within his
however, defended Wen despite the revelation. One user argued that China's
elite politics requires some skin in the game. "In that group, this is the
ticket that makes you eligible to play. If your ass is clean and your family
has no assets, you have no qualification to form any alliances or make
bargains." Others still admire Wen for being the most senior and the most
vocal among those Chinese officials who dare to openly call for reforms.
"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,"
wrote one user.
armchair political analysts on social media see far more in the article than a
simple exposé about Wen's family wealth. The timing of the article, two weeks
before the 18th Party Congress that will solidify the future leadership of
China for the next decade, seems to indicate that a final showdown between
ideological camps is playing out behind the heavy gates of the central
government's Zhongnanhai compound.
three days before the article's
publications, overseas Chinese media [which is not bound by the same
restrictions as domestic Chinese media] reported that
a portfolio of documents on Wen had been delivered to various foreign media
outlets. As Wen presents himself as a champion of China's liberals and
reformers, many assumed that the dirt on Wen was given to foreign media by
Wen's enemies or supporters of former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, the
fallen symbol of the conservative camp who yearned for a return to Communist or
position is the New York Times
taking? Have they been bought out by the supporters of Mao?" asked one
user. "All sides are making their final moves and positioning their
pieces--that is what I think about the NYT's headline today," commented
another. Some believe the newspaper is being used as a pawn in the power
struggle, "This time NYT really does not understand China--too much of a
user wrote:"The information is probably given to the New York Times by left-wing powers in China, and the right-wing
deserves it. [In China, "left-wing" means conservative and "right-wing" means
liberal.] They are so bad, wanting to eliminate the left wing in China
completely and treating Bo Xilai and his family so horribly. If [Wen] does not
fall, our country and the Party are finished."
however, have confidence in Wen's position. One commentator tweeted, "I
read it, except for the crazy big dollar figure. The report is not surprising
because the relationship between power and money is so close in China today.
Nothing major will happen [to Wen]. I think [the Party] has investigated this a
long time ago, and if something like this would cause a problem for Wen, it
would have happened already."
matter what happens to Wen and the line-up at the 18th Party Congress, Wen's
political legacy and historical image are likely to be forever tainted by the
revelations in the article. One social media user has no sympathy: "A
giant when he talks, but a dwarf when he acts. Fare thee well."