It was about 5 in the morning in Beijing when the New York Times revealed, in a story posted to its website, that the family of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has amassed "assets worth at least $2.7 billion." Whether deliberate or not, the timing could have been helpful for allowing the story an opportunity to spread in China, going online early enough that censors might not be watching closely but late enough that it might have a chance of making it into web users' first social media scan of the morning.
But the story is a remarkably sensitive one -- it contradicts Wen's image as a more wholesome reformer and comes at a time of political transition, economic slowdown, and rising public resentment of wealthy officials -- and the censors moved quickly. Within a couple of hours, both the New York Times' English and Mandarin sites were blocked in China. When someone on the BBC mentioned the story, the station's broadcast immediately went black in China. Discussion on China's vibrant and fast-moving Twitter-like service, Weibo, seems to have been ground to a halt almost as quickly as it started.
The online censorship has been "as fast I've seen it," said Liz Carter, an experienced China-watcher and a contributor to the site Tea Leaf Nation, which analyzes Chinese social media and Chinese web trends. The phrase "New York Times" is blocked as a search term. Wen's name, as with other top Chinese officials, is typically blocked, including now.
As an indication of how quickly Weibo censors are combing through the site's constant torrent of discussion to delete any mention of the story, Carter pointed me to a post by Wang Feng, a respected Chinese professor at the prestigious Tsinghua University. "[For] the original text, see the account of Yong Cai," Wang posted at 9:18 a.m., Beijing time. Yong is a professor at the University of North Carolina who studies Chinese governance. Carter, watching the Weibo post go up live, clicked over and saw nothing. She clicked back to Wang's page and saw that Yong had posted a response: "It's already been harmonized," meaning deleted. The timestamp was 9:19 a.m., just one minute after Wang's post.
Carter was able to find some scant mentions of the story, but only very light discussion, much of it focusing on the disruptive censorship itself. "No wonder everything's been censored," one commented. Another asked, "Has anyone seen the headline of the New York Times?" Someone wondered whether $2.7 billion would be enough to place Wen on Forbes magazine's annual list of international billionaires. (It would, tying him at 442nd with a number of others, including Oprah Winfrey.)
That censors have so far been able to tamp down a story with such potential resonance among Chinese web users is striking. Low-level officials caught flashing far, far less wealth than $2.7 billion have become the victims of populist web campaigns so large and sustained that they have been forced to resign and sometimes even ended up in prison. "When they want to they can still enforce a pretty clean wipe of social media," Carter said. That they've moved so quickly suggests that Beijing fears the public backlash should the news spread. But how long can they keep down a story this big?