BEIJING -- Attorneys for family members of China’s prime minister hit back over the weekend at the New York Times, calling the newspaper’s report about wealth amassed by Wen Jiabao’s family “untrue” and suggesting they may take legal action.
On Friday, the Times published a lengthy article stating that Wen’s family members controlled a fortune worth $2.7 billion. The newspaper’s Chinese and English-language websites were promptly blocked in mainland China, and media outlets in the mainland did not mention the story.
A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry on Friday labeled the story a “smear” and suggested “ulterior motives” were behind the report. But it is highly unusual for private attorneys enlisted by a Chinese official to directly criticize foreign media reports in public and to hint at the possibility of legal action, as representatives for Wen’s family did over the weekend.
Wen’s attorneys released a statement to the South China Morning Post and Sing Tao Daily, two newspapers in Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule 15 years ago but enjoys much greater press freedoms than does the mainland.
In a six-point statement running about a page long and published Sunday, Bai Tao of the Gu He Law Offices and Wang Weisong of the Grandall Law Firm said “the so-called ‘hidden riches’ of Wen Jiabao’s family members in the New York Times’ report does not exist.”
“The mother of Wen Jiabao, except receiving salary/pension according to the regulation, has never had any income or property,” they added.
The Times story, citing corporate and regulatory records, said Wen’s 90-year-old mother, Yang Zhiyun, had an investment in her name in a large Chinese financial services company that had a value of $120 million five years ago.
The 70-year-old prime minister, sometimes referred to as “Grandpa Wen” because of his image as a humble man who is in touch with average Chinese, has broad authority for economic decision-making and regulatory oversight in China.
Donald C. Clarke, a law professor of at George Washington University, writing on his China Law Prof blog, said the lawyers’ statement actually “disputes remarkably little.”
In all, he said, the statement challenges only one specific assertion (that Wen's mother is a multi-millionaire) and general assertion (that several of his relatives own shares in various corporations).
“It may be that in many cases it is literally true that the relatives don't own shares in companies; instead, they may hold interests in partnerships or some other entity that doesn't have shares, and the entities in turn hold the corporate shares,” Clarke wrote. “But I wonder whether you can go through life as a wealthy person and not own any shares in any companies.”
In a report on the Times’ website, Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for newspaper, said “we are standing by our story, which we are incredibly proud of and which is an example of the quality investigative journalism The Times is known for.”
The New York Times launched its Chinese-language site in June, a major effort that required hiring dozens of translators and moving its Beijing bureau into more expansive facilities. The site’s servers are outside China. If Wen’s lawyers were to move forward with legal action, it is unclear in what venue they would seek redress, or how they might structure a complaint.
The Chinese press routinely carries stories about corruption among local and provincial officials.
In June, Bloomberg news published an article about the family wealth of Xi Jinping, who is slated to take over from President Hu Jintao in the coming months. Since then, Bloomberg’s website has been blocked in China; however, neither Xi nor any representatives for him ever responded directly to the report.
-- Julie Makinen
Photo: Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao gestures at a March press conference after the closing session of the annual National People's Congress in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Credit: Alexander F. Yuan / AP Photo