Time to come clean on family wealth
Premier Wen Jiabao has asserted his innocence over claims of hidden riches, but the speculation will continue until he clarifies the matter
In April last year, veteran Hong Kong columnist Ng Hong-mun revealed that he had held a 90-minute meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing where they talked about political reforms and the upcoming chief executive election in Hong Kong. Ng, a former local deputy to the National People's Congress, said Wen invited him because of his "inspiring in-depth analysis" on issues.
What was intriguing about the meeting was that Ng released two photos, apparently with Wen's consent - one showing him sitting with Wen and his wife Zhang Peili. Until then, Wen had never been seen with his wife at any public event since he became premier in 2003, in sharp contrast to his predecessors, including Zhu Rongji and Li Peng, who often took their wives on overseas visits or to public functions.
Some analysts speculated that Wen deliberately tried to protect his public image of being a "people's premier" because of widespread rumours of his wife's deep involvement in the jewellery business on the mainland.
But what was more interesting about Ng's meeting and publication of the photos was what he did not reveal at the time.
Shortly after The New York Times published an explosive exposé in October this year about Wen's family wealth - valued at US$2.7 billion - Ng published an article defending Wen, recalling that as he was saying goodbye at the meeting, Wen handed him a bag of clippings of reports about allegations against his family, including his wife and his son, Winston Wen Yunsong. Now this is a telling revelation.
Wen gave Ng the materials, apparently aware that he would write about the meeting. Was Wen sending a cryptic message to Ng that he should publicly broach the sensitive issue? According to Ng, Wen did not ask him to do anything about it.
With the benefit of hindsight, it reflects Wen's keen awareness of and concern over growing allegations against his family.
Two days after the Times report, family lawyers representing the Wen family issued a statement rebutting the article, saying that so-called hidden riches did not exist, and that they would make further clarifications.
But since then, the lawyers have remained silent, despite the fact that the speculation has not diminished. Although mainland censors blocked access to the Times website, its reports have reached millions of mainlanders through e-mails and the social media.
At a meeting with members of the Chinese community in Bangkok last month, Wen asserted his innocence.
Quoting and paraphrasing verses from Qu Yuan - one of China's most famous ancient poets - he said: "For the pursuit of my innocence, I would die with honesty and integrity."
This was widely interpreted as his first public reaction to the claims made by the Times.
Just days later, the Times published another long piece, providing more details in claiming how Wen's relatives and colleagues of his wife made a windfall from their stake in Ping An - one of the mainland's largest insurers - from which most of Wen's family wealth allegedly come from.
To add to the intrigue, HSBC Holdings confirmed last month that it was in discussions to sell its entire stake of nearly 16 per cent in Ping An. As HSBC is Ping An's single largest shareholder, the buyer of the stake would have considerable influence over composition of the board of the directors if the sale goes through. This raises tantalising questions on how the insurer would deal with persistent speculation over Wen's family wealth in the future.
In Bangkok, Wen said he wanted to live a life of seclusion following his retirement in March.
So it is essential that he make further clarifications over all those allegations.