NYT writer David Barboza tipped off a firestorm this week when he published a piece detailing the enormous sums the Wen family has accumulated recently:
The mother of China’s prime minister was a schoolteacher in northern China. His father was ordered to tend pigs in one of Mao’s political campaigns. And during childhood, “my family was extremely poor,” the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, said in a speech last year.
But now 90, the prime minister’s mother, Yang Zhiyun, not only left poverty behind — she became outright rich, at least on paper, according to corporate and regulatory records. Just one investment in her name, in a large Chinese financial services company, had a value of $120 million five years ago, the records show.
The details of how Ms. Yang, a widow, accumulated such wealth are not known, or even if she was aware of the holdings in her name. But it happened after her son was elevated to China’s ruling elite, first in 1998 as vice prime minister and then five years later as prime minister.
Many relatives of Wen Jiabao, including his son, daughter, younger brother and brother-in-law, have become extraordinarily wealthy during his leadership, an investigation by The New York Times shows. A review of corporate and regulatory records indicates that the prime minister’s relatives, some of whom have a knack for aggressive deal-making, including his wife, have controlled assets worth at least $2.7 billion.
The article is long but worth a read, as Barboza details how a Chinese politician known for his down-to-earth touch has become the center of a massive corruption vortex. None of this is surprising, as such, but the details have never been laid out so clearly and investigated so thoroughly before.
The blowback has been impressive, as the Times’ Chinese-language site was blocked in China within hours:
The episode is an extreme example of an enduring newspaper-world fact: journalism and business interests don’t always go hand in hand.
The Times did exactly what one would hope and expect: It published a great story without undue regard for the short-term business consequences.
Mr. Sulzberger said the publication of the article was preceded by “conversations with the Chinese government to discuss it.”
“They wanted to air their concerns – which I listened to, as I should,” Mr. Sulzberger said. “And eventually, we made a decision to publish.”
Joseph Kahn, the foreign editor, told me that he knew when the reporting on this story began – about a year ago – that it would be a “threshold issue” for the Chinese government.
“I expected it to test the limits of what they would tolerate from the foreign media,” he said. (In speaking with me, he emphasized that Mr. Barboza’s direct editor on the story was Dean Murphy, a deputy business editor.)
Mr. Kahn said that as recently as Wednesday, Mr. Sulzberger and the executive editor, Jill Abramson, met with Chinese government representatives at The Times. But the focus of that conversation was not about the journalism – it was about political and cultural differences.
In short, Chinese officials were making the case that The Times not publish the article.