Family members of Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao "have controlled assets worth at least $2.7 billion," according to an explosive story from the New York Times. The story hits on some of the most sensitive issues in China today, and at a particularly important moment in the country's political transition.
The Chinese Communist Party has over the past year struggled to contain rising public concerns about official corruption. Though most such stories involve low-level officials, Beijing sought over much of 2012 to make an example of Bo Xilai, a nationally visible rising star in the party who is now in prison on charges of corruption and related to his wife's suspected role in the murder of a British national.
Making an example of Bo is likely meant to cultivate the public image of the Communist Party as a broadly benevolent and self-policing body, in which corruption is the exception rather than the norm, as an increasing number of citizens seem to suspect. The slowing economy, which has stalled many Chinese families' efforts to climb into the middle class, is exacerbating public resentment of public officials who seem to be doing better and better.
On China's vibrant and ever-growing social Web, netizens often circulate stories of corruption that don't make it into censored, traditional outlets. At times, these stories have grown so large that censors were unable to stop them, in some cases leading officials to resign or even end up in jail. Chinese officials have in turn responded with increasing urgency to such stories, apparently all too aware of the risks to the party's legitimacy at a time when the economy is slowing.
Wen's own public image is built in part on his humble origins, a man seemingly the opposite of the flashy Bo. That Wen would have apparently amassed such vast wealth for his family in secret would seem to risk damaging not just his reputation, should the story spread in China, but that of the Communist Party itself, so closely is Wen associated with its more benevolent face.
In June, Bloomberg reported that Vice President Xi Jinping, who is poised to take over as president later this year, had collected $376 million for his own family. Government censors, apparently spooked, took the unusual step of not just censoring online discussion of the story but shutting down Chinese access to the Bloomberg site entirely. It's still early in China, so the censors may not yet be awake, but you can feel sure that someone in Beijing is worried about today's New York Times revelation. How they respond could say a great deal about their sense of the public's confidence in the party.