Wen Jiabao’s family attacked the New York Times story that alleged family members of the outgoing premier have amassed almost $3 billion in assets during his time in power, and Chinese censors vigilantly kept all mention of the controversy out of the local press and off the Chinese Internet. The FT analyzes the situation:
It is extremely rare for senior Chinese leaders to publicly criticise foreign media reports and raise the spectre of legal action. The story is particularly damaging for Mr Wen who has tried to cultivate a reputation as the clean “People’s Premier”.
Cheng Li, a Chinese politics expert at Brookings Institution, said the move to criticise the story so directly was “unprecedented” and could serve as a model for Chinese leaders in dealing with critical reports.
“Wen Jiabao is behaving differently from other Chinese leaders. His reaction can potentially be a positive example,” said Mr Li.
It is very easy for people in China to get around the Great Firewall using virtual private networks (VPNs) to circumvent the censors, and the story, not only of Wen’s purported family wealth, but of incoming premier Xi Jinping’s family riches (reported by Bloomberg) as well, is circulating widely in both English and Chinese.
Nothing will happen right away, but the rivers of bitterness and cynicism in China are building up and will one day burst through the dam that struggles to contain them. Happiest about the scandals will be the left wingers who backed Bo Xilai and hoped for a return to more Maoist times; they will now be able to argue that the attacks on Bo are politically motivated and that Bo in any case is no worse than the others.
The bottom line is this: the Chinese Communist Party has lost the ability to police its own leadership—and is rapidly losing the ability to hide the behavior of the powerful from society at large. A party that cannot govern itself cannot govern a nation in the long run; China has never needed serious and sweeping political reform more urgently than it needs them today.