Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. ( AP-Yonhap News)
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has been the focus of international scrutiny since the New York Times last week reported that his family had squirreled away a fortune in business deals.
The revelations could make next month’s sweeping power transition in Beijing, and the inevitable jockeying for position among the country’s elite, more fraught.
Few would be shocked by the revelations, but that they were openly reported in such detail has apparently damaged Wen’s image as a grandfatherly figure with a common touch.
Internet censors went to the absurd extent of blocking the premier’s name from some search engines, as well as 2.7 billion, the number of dollars allegedly accrued by his family. Search terms were reportedly still being added to the list Wednesday.
On Sunday, Wen’s lawyer’s issued a statement accusing the New York Times of lying.
“The so-called ‘hidden riches’ of Wen’s family in the New York Times do not exist,” it read.
But it went on to deny several claims that were not even made in the story.
The statement said that his family had conducted no illegal business deals, owned no shares, and that Wen had not intervened in their favor. But the story did not allege interference by Wen, or illegal business, and the wealth described was not in directly-owned shares.
However rich Wen’s lawyers would have us believe the premier’s family is, they are clearly not paupers.
Neither are those at the top of Chinese politics. Bloomberg reported in February that the wealth of the richest 70 members in China’s National People’s Congress rose to 565.8 billion yuan ($89.8 billion) in 2011, comparing it to the net wealth of $7.5 billion held by the top 660 officials in the three branches of the U.S. government.
As Wen’s generation exits their replacements will likely include wealthy political scions ― known as “princelings” ― such as Xi Jinping, who is expected to replace President Hu Jintao.
This has all made it more difficult to use disgraced regional party chief Bo Xilai as a lightning rod for criticism of party wrongdoing, and added to pressure for more general changes.
As the party leadership balances pressures for change from different factions, the scandal will certainly give party leaders more to think about.
By Paul Kerry (firstname.lastname@example.org