Family Of China's Premier Is Really, Really Rich - China Doesn't Want People To Know

Oct 26, 2012
Originally published on October 26, 2012 5:57 pm

An explosive report from the New York Times today spelled out just how wealthy the relatives of Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao are. Try $2.7 billion dollars in assets. This startling news so angered Chinese officials that the Times' website was quickly shut down in China.

The lengthy report says Wen's children, brother, brother-in-law, wife and mother became "extraordinarily wealthy" after he ascended to top levels of power, starting in 1998. Some family assets include real estate developments, factories, an insurance service corporation and a private equity firm.

There are family interests described in banks, resorts, telecommunications firms and even jewelers. Wen's relatives appear to be trading on their connections, especially the premier's enormous power over big industries they've invested in, such as energy.

The portrait of the premier's relatives is very different from the one Wen has projected of himself over the past decade, NPR's Louisa Lim told Newscasts: "Premier Wen Jiabao is known as Grandpa Wen, the leader with the common touch who visits disaster sites and who caused a sensation by wearing the same down jacket over a ten year-period."

The report looks closely at Wen's wife, Zhang Beili, perhaps one of the most influential people in China's diamond and gem industry. A skilled businesswoman, she accumulated wealth and power, and helped family members do the same. There's no evidence Wen did anything to bolster her work but the story says part of the family's success came from investors who most wanted to please the premier.

Wen has cast himself as a reformer who's against government corruption, and has called for stronger financial disclosure rules for public officials. The Times notes in 2007, Wen repeated a call for senior government officials to fight graft: "They should strictly ensure that their family members, friends and close subordinates do not abuse government influence."

But there don't seem to be any financial disclosures from Wen himself. The Times says most of the $2.7 billion dollar investments it found were held by in-laws, his mother, his brother, and the parents of his daughter-in-law. These investments don't have to be publically identified, according to Communist party rules.

China's censors quickly squelched the Times story within a couple of hours after its publication. The Washington Post notes any media outlet, such as the BBC, that referred to the 'New York Times' was also quickly blocked in China. There's heightened sensitivity over Wen's image, because of China's upcoming leadership conference, at which Chinese leaders will transfer power to a new generation of officials.

There's already been embarrassing controversy over senior Chinese government leader Bo Xilai, whose wife was convicted in the murder of a British businessman. Bo, who's been forced out of government and out of the Communist party, is himself accused of corruption, taking bribes and abusing power. Bo had once been a candidate for top office.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

In China, you can tell what sensitive topics the government most fears by looking at what's being blocked by Chinese censors, and today it's the New York Times websites that are being blocked, both English and Chinese language sites. Also censored on the Chinese version of Twitter, the name of the prime minister, Wen Jiabao.

Why? Well, today the Times published a lengthy investigation into what it called the hidden riches of the Chinese premier's family. According to the Times, his relatives have amassed over $2.7 billion dollars in wealth, starting with the diamond industry and moving into insurance, high-tech, telecom, infrastructure, many of them industries over which Prime Minister Wen has authority. And the Times reports they have attempted to conceal their wealth.

For some context, we've called on longtime China watcher Rob Gifford. Rob, of course, used to cover China for NPR. He's now China editor at The Economist. Rob, welcome.

ROB GIFFORD: Hi, Melissa, good to be back.

BLOCK: Good to have you back. The Times calls this the first detailed accounting of the prime minister's family's wealth. Why is this so sensitive?

GIFFORD: Well, it's sensitive because it's publishing details that no one has ever published before, and it's sensitive because of the sheer scale of it. I think within sort of China-watching circles, there's not a huge amount of surprise to find that, hey, a senior Chinese government official's family is fabulously wealthy. But just to see it all so brilliantly reported by David Barboza in the New York Times is just amazing to see it all laid out and so brilliantly written.

BLOCK: Here are details from David Barboza's report. He reviewed 20 years of corporate records. He could find no holdings in Prime Minister Wen's name, but he was able to link assets to the premier's wife, a gemstone expert known as the Diamond Queen; also Wen's 90-year-old mother, who's apparently worth at least $120 million; and Wen's son, who runs a private equity firm with $2.5 billion under management.

Rob, was there one detail in particular that really jumped out at you, that made you go wow?

GIFFORD: I suppose the mother was quite a striking one because Wen Jiabao has made so much of his humble roots. You know, he has this rather avuncular image. He's known as Grandpa Wen. He's known to be, you know, a bit of the man of the people.

But the fact that his 90-year-old mother has these listings in her name did grab me. And, of course, this is part of what the article claims is, you know, all throughout his family. His younger brother, his son, his daughter, his brother-in-law have enriched themselves because of his position.

BLOCK: Rob, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry was asked about this today and said the report blackens China and has ulterior motives. And there's a source quoted in the New York Times anonymously who says the prime minister's enemies are intentionally trying to smear him by letting this leak out. So help us understand that. Who would those enemies be, and why would they be trying to smear him if in fact they are?

GIFFORD: Well, in order to understand Chinese politics, it sometimes helps to think of it as a bit like a European medieval court and the factions within it. And just like within a medieval court, many of these senior politicians have made enemies. However, I don't think that defense is really very strong in this case. I think this is a case of very strong reporting by the New York Times that is basically unveiling all sorts of things, which I think are going to be very hard to defend.

BLOCK: This is coming at a really sensitive time in China, right, Rob? The next Party Congress is coming up in November. Wen Jiabao will be stepping down as prime minister, but he could still wield a lot of power behind the scenes, right?

GIFFORD: That's right. And this is going to undoubtedly do him some damage in that regard. But probably the more important part of this is the damage that it will do to those Chinese people who can access the report and who will read the report, and I'm sure there will be many in spite of the blocking and the controls, just the reinforcement that it gives in their minds of the corruptness of the upper echelons of the Communist Party generally.

BLOCK: That's Rob Gifford, now China editor at The Economist. Rob, thanks so much.

GIFFORD: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: And we'll hear about the challenges facing China at this time of political transition in series running all next week on this program. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.