The segment titled “Data leak reveals off-shore account for rich and powerful,” played up the global scope of the leak but fell short of naming any of the Chinese figures identified in initial reports.
It’s an omission that says much about how the story is playing here — that is, selectively or not all. And it hints at how sensitive Beijing is when it comes to news coverage, even overseas.
The Panama Papers are awkward for Beijing. The findings — the result of a year-long collaboration between a German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and more than 100 media outlets — claim to expose “a cast of characters who use offshore companies to facilitate bribery, arms deals, tax evasion and drug trafficking.”
The report does not make specific allegations of wrongdoing, but it raises questions about the need for hard-to-trace offshore accounts. Yet even that riles Chinese authorities. The ICIJ’s initial report mentioned Deng Jiagui, the brother-in-law of China’s current president, Xi Jinping, and Li Xiaolin, the tycoon daughter of China’s former premier, Li Peng.
On Tuesday, the BBC went public with two more names: Zhang Gaoli and Liu Yunshan, both members of China’s elite standing committee.
Reporting on the 11.5 million leaked documents, which include emails, spreadsheets and corporate records from law firm Mossack Fonseca, is being published in batches. A full account may be days or weeks away. The Washington Post has not seen all of the source material and cannot independently verify what the documents are said to reveal.
The Post has not seen evidence of illegal activity by the Chinese nationals named. And, as the ICIJ reporting rightly points out, there are legal uses for shell companies.
The Communist Party does not like to discuss the business dealings of its leaders. In 2012, investigations into the family wealth of former premier Wen Jiabao and Xi by the New York Times and Bloomberg News, respectively, resulted in some journalists from both outlets being denied visas.
A 2014 report on the offshore holdings of some 22,000 people in Hong Kong and China was dismissed by a government spokesman — then scrubbed from China's Web.
News of the ICIJ’s reporting landed in China on a national holiday. As such, the country’s censors initially seemed slow to pounce.
On Monday, stories about the Chinese figures named in the report briefly circulated on WeChat, a wildly popular messaging app, and popped up on other social media platforms.
Several Chinese websites went with the story, reporting on disclosures related to Russian President Vladimir Putin and soccer star Lionel Messi without touching on any of the documents linked to powerful Chinese.
As the day progressed — and the story grew — the censors swung into action. Censorship directives leaked to China Digital Times, a U.S.-based website, urged Chinese media to “find and delete reprinted reports on the Panama Papers.”
“Do not follow up on related content, no exceptions. If material from foreign media attack China is found on any Website, it will be dealt with severely,” it said.
On Tuesday, "Panama" was one of the Chinese Web's hottest search terms, according to FreeWeibo, a website that tracks searches and censored content. It was also one of the most censored: Terms such as "Panama documents" and "Panama offshore" were mostly blocked.
The Global Times, a Communist Party-linked newspaper with a nationalist bent, published an editorial claiming that an unnamed "powerful force" was behind the leak and that the aim was to smear opponents of the West, namely Putin.
“The Western media has taken control of the interpretation each time there has been such a document dump," the editorial said.
"Information that is negative to the U.S. can always be minimized, while exposure of non-Western leaders, such as Putin, can get extra spin.”