THE NEW York Times recently offered a revealing look at how family members of a senior Chinese political figure had amassed a nine-figure fortune. It also struck a welcome blow against an aggressive effort by Chinese authorities to censor such information not just from domestic media but also from the U.S. press.
The 2,600-word report by Michael Forsythe, Chris Buckley and Jonathan Ansfield detailed the business holdings of family members of Zhou Yongkang, a former Politburo member, chief of the state security apparatus and overseer of the oil industry. The Times said three of Mr. Zhou’s relatives, including his son, had stakes in at least 37 companies in China, ranging from Audi dealerships to suppliers of oil-field equipment. The holdings were worth at least $160 million, the report said, not including real estate or any offshore bank accounts the family might possess.
Mr. Zhou is the third present or former member of the Politburo’s Standing Committee who has been shown to have family members with assets of more than $150 million, the Times noted. The other two are former prime minister Wen Jiabao and Xi Jinping, the current Communist Party leader and president. Since becoming China’s top leader 18 months ago, Mr. Xi has launched an anti-corruption drive with Mr. Zhou as its most prominent target; the Times reported that six members of his family have been arrested in recent months.
There have been no investigations of the families of Mr. Wen or Mr. Xi, however, and the Xi regime has gone to great lengths to suppress all reports about the vast accumulation of wealth by party leaders. Though Mr. Zhou has been purged — apparently for political reasons — no reporting about his family’s fortune has appeared in the Chinese press. Meanwhile, Chinese authorities have taken numerous steps to punish and deter the Times and Bloomberg News, which published extensive reports on Mr. Xi and Mr. Wen in 2012. Numerous journalists from the two organizations have been denied visas, and their Web sites in China have been blocked.
Sadly, the campaign appears to have had an effect on Bloomberg. Faced with a sharp drop in the number of financial news terminals purchased in China, the company appeared to rein in its investigative reporting. According to reports by the Times and the Financial Times, a major story about the financial connections of China’s wealthiest man to the families of party leaders was spiked last November because of concerns about Beijing’s reaction. Though Bloomberg editors subsequently maintained that the story had been held for journalistic reasons, Bloomberg chairman Peter T. Grauer recently told a meeting of the Asia Society that “we may have kind of rethought — should have rethought” some China stories, the Times reported. Mr. Forsythe, a veteran reporter in China who worked on the withheld story, was fired from the company, and several other staffers subsequently departed.
In addition to compromising its journalistic integrity, Bloomberg’s climbdown also raised the worrisome question of whether China could succeed in intimidating not just its own media but also those of the United States and other Western democracies. That’s why the Times deserves particular credit for having hired Mr. Forsythe after his firing and for continuing to pursue stories about the wealth of senior Chinese officials. The information is deeply revealing about the Chinese political system, and the country’s citizens deserve to know it.
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