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A tarnished reputation

Matthias von Hein / actNovember 7, 2012

China's prime minister has built up a reputation for himself as an anti-corruption reformer. His relatives however seems to have amassed millions during his time in office. They are not alone.

Image: Reuters

"China's best actor - Wen Jiabao" by Hu Jie was published in Hong Kong in 2010 but it is still banned on the Chinese mainland. The author's main argument is that China's prime minister is not so much a man of the people and a reformer as he would like his fellow citizens to think, but more of a populist autocrat.

A recent report in the New York Times tarnishes his carefully crafted image as "Mr. Clean" even more. According to an elaborate diagram, Wen's relatives have amassed assets of about 2.7 billion US dollars in the past 10 years.

The Chinese authorities reacted to the report by blocking the Chinese-language online version of the New York Times, which was launched in June, as well as the English edition. All comments posted about the issue online were deleted. Then two lawyers of the Wen family published a statement saying that there were no "hidden riches" and that the report consisted of lies. In no way had Wen Jiabao unfairly favored his family, they said.

Chinese President Hu Jintao and the politburo; AP Photo/Andy Wong
There is great suspense about the new appointments to the politburoImage: AP

Official sources

However, the New York Times insists that the report is not based on unreliable information but on official sources. The author David Barboza explained to readers how he had requested documents from various Chinese government offices over a year. He put together information he received from the State Administration for Industry and Commerce bureaus and then went on a "reporting spree."

He uncovered a network of friends and relatives which has become extremely rich since Wen took office.

In June, the media corporation Bloomberg had put the spotlight on Xi Jinping in similar fashion. The man expected to be nominated party head at the November 8 Party Congress reportedly has assets of around 300 million euros. Bloomberg's site was also immediately blocked in China.

Lacing their pockets

The report about Wen's family came at a very awkward moment ahead of the Party Congress. Large parts of the Chinese population are angered by the way the country's political elites have laced their pockets. Last month, a poll conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that people are increasingly worried about corruption and inequality in the country of "socialism with Chinese characteristics."

The reports about abuse of power, corruption and nepotism have been abundant this year; a great stir was caused by the dismissal of the "princeling" Bo Xilai, former party chief of China's biggest city, Chongqing. His wife was later charged with murdering British businessman Neil Heywood and given a suspended death sentence. The two are accused of accumulating huge amounts of money illegally.

Living it up

A car accident also shed unwanted light on the lifestyle of China's high-ranking functionaries and their relatives. In March, the Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported briefly about an accident on a Beijing highway; an initially unnamed driver of a Ferrari and two scantily clad young female passengers had crashed. It gradually emerged that the man was the son of Ling Jihua, one of the closest confidantes of President Hu Jintao. Once tipped to become a member of the Politburo, Ling Jihua was then demoted. Online search for Ferrari were blocked.

Gu Kailai and Bo Xilai; REUTERS/Stringer/Files
Gu Kailai and Bo Xilai were hoping to reach the highest echelons before scandal hitImage: Reuters

The party would prefer the public not to think that nothing has changed in the past 2000 years. According to legend, a prince named Liu An concocted an elixir of immortality in 2 BC. After he drank it and went to heaven, his dogs and chickens drank the rest and also became immortal. Today, the saying goes that anyone who becomes immortal goes to heaven with their dogs and chickens.

The report about Wen Jiabao's assets seems to confirm that at least the heaven of financial riches is open to the relatives of those in power.