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.
On 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.
The 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.
B: Is it my mother?
A: Haha, no. It is the "best actor" not to be named.
B: Best actor? Which one?
A: Somebody up there named Wen.
B: Oh. Got it!
Within 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 article’s publication.
Some 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 that."
Rumors 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!!!"
The 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 family?"
Many, 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.
China’s 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.
Just 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 Maoist orthodoxy.
"What 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 puppet."
Another 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."
Others, 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."
No 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."