Wen's opportunity for openness
Allegations that the Wen family has accumulated US$2.7b may support those who argue for public disclosure of officials' private assets
For decades, overseas media have run countless articles containing serious allegations of political and commercial corruption against high-ranking Chinese officials. But for reasons beyond comprehension, mainland authorities and the officials singled out in such articles have rarely attempted to respond publicly to the allegations.
That's despite the fact that many of the articles are wild, unsubstantiated and quite damaging, not only to individual reputations but also to the reputation of the entire country in the eyes of the international community.
So it was very interesting to see that the family of Premier Wen Jiabao issued an unprecedented statement on Saturday night, hitting back at The New York Times for its explosive exposé about their wealth, while also threatening to sue the American newspaper. This may be the first time a top mainland leader has responded directly to an overseas media report.
As the public mulls over the political and legal implications, the move by the Wen family has raised hopes that the statement could mark a shift in the approach by mainland authorities towards overseas media reports, and more broadly, that this could prompt Chinese leaders to improve transparency and publicly address political scandals that are widely reported overseas.
One example of such a story involved a mysterious Ferrari crash in March that killed the son of the principal aide to President Hu Jintao and resulted in the apparent demotion of that aide, Ling Jihua. Many questions have gone unanswered amid attempts to cover up the accident.
Many analysts have rightly pointed out that the main allegations in The New York Times report about the Wen family's wealth are not really new, as they were previously reported by other overseas newspapers and websites, although Wen and his family did not then respond.
This time perhaps Wen was left with little choice but to react - The Times, one of America's most respected newspapers, had put together an extremely comprehensive and detailed report about the wealth of his family.
In particular, it singled out Wen's 90-year-old mother as having once held a US$120 million (HK$930 million) investment in Ping An Insurance, one of the mainland's largest insurance companies. Wen has often credited his mother as being the biggest influence on both his character and integrity.
It goes without saying that the report, which put the value of his family's wealth at US$2.7 billion, would have proven disastrous to the image of the "people's premier" that Wen has projected over the past 10 years if he had not reacted quickly to reject the contents.
More ominously, Wen's political enemies could use the report as an excuse to go after Wen's family members following his full retirement early next year.
Of course, the timing of the report is also interesting; it comes just days before the 18th Party Congress where a new leadership line-up will be approved.
Understandably, the article dropped like a bomb on political circles in Beijing. Senior mainland officials are not really that interested in Wen's family wealth but they want to know what Wen - or more precisely, the mainland leadership - is going to do next.
A statement was released by the two lawyers retained by Wen's family. For anyone who studies mainland politics, it isn't hard to deduce that the statement must have been discussed and approved by the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, of which Wen is one.
There have been unconfirmed online reports that Wen wrote to the committee and called for an investigation into the allegations in the newspaper report. This sounds likely as Wen has no other choice if he wants to keep his reputation intact. But any investigation would probably take many weeks, if not months.
Although the statement said the family reserved the right to hold the American newspaper "legally responsible", Chinese leaders are believed to be divided over whether Wen's family should pursue The New York Times in court. Some have urged Wen to file a lawsuit in a Chinese court, but others are wary of setting a precedent for a top mainland leader being subpoenaed to testify on the witness stand.
Perhaps the most effective approach for Wen to salvage his reputation, under the current circumstances, is for him to set an example by publicly declaring his own wealth and that of his immediate family members.
Over the past 15 years, analysts and even officials have called for civil servants to be made to publicly declare their assets, to allay the swelling public anger about official corruption. Mainland leaders have stalled on this issue for years.
Wen has personally voiced support for such a regulation, and he has now been presented with a good opportunity to back up his comments.