Beijing reacted furiously yesterday to an overseas media report that Premier Wen Jiabao's family had accumulated massive wealth during his time in office.
"Some reports smear China and have ulterior motives," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in response to a question about The New York Times report, which said Wen's family controlled at least US$2.7 billion worth of assets.
Hong declined to comment on the accuracy of the report.
The websites of the English and Chinese editions of the paper were blocked on the mainland yesterday. Observers said the action underscored Beijing's sensitivity to revelations about top leaders, especially as they were likely to be used in an intensifying power struggle inside the Communist Party in the run-up to the party's national congress early next month and the announcement of China's next leadership team.
Hong Kong-based political commentator Johnny Lau Yui-siu said Hong's remarks indicated Beijing was worried some people in the inner political circle were teaming up with foreign forces to influence the next leadership line-up - even though the newspaper has conducted a thorough investigation into Wen.
"The impact caused by the exposure is wide-ranging because other top Chinese leaders may sooner or later face the same situation," he said.
The New York Times reported that Wen's family had acquired huge wealth since Wen was named vice-premier in 1998. One example cited by the paper was an investment by his 90-year-old mother in Ping An Insurance that was worth US$120 million five years ago.
The US paper launched a Chinese-language website on June 28, but it and the paper's English website were inaccessible on the mainland yesterday.
Sources close to the paper said its mainland operation continued to carry out work as normal, but staff had been told a few days ago that the website might be blocked.
"We hope that full access is restored shortly, and we will ask the Chinese authorities to ensure that our readers in China can continue to enjoy New York Times journalism," the paper's spokeswoman, Eileen Murphy, said.
Wen is the second top leader whose family assets have been disclosed by overseas media. Bloomberg News reported in June that relatives of Vice-President Xi Jinping , who is expected to become the party's next general secretary and China's next president, had investments in companies with assets of US$375 million. The agency's website has been blocked on the mainland since then.
Several overseas websites, including US-based Boxun, reported two days ago some overseas media had received "detailed" information about Wen, triggering concerns there could be a conspiracy to undermine him.
The leadership transition this year has grown murky following the downfall of former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai , who was expelled from the National People's Congress yesterday, clearing the way for his trial.
Leftist groups have supported Bo's conservative "red culture campaign". But in March, Wen said Bo should reflect seriously on the flight of his former right-hand man, Wang Lijun , to the US consulate in Chengdu and warned that China risked seeing a repeat of the Cultural Revolution without political reform.
There has also been mounting speculation that the make-up of the next Politburo Standing Committee has not been finalised, with Guangdong party chief Wang Yang - seen as one of the party's leading voices for reform - being one of those whose next role is in doubt.
"Different camps are using different ways to exert influence," said Gu Su , a law professor at Nanjing University who is familiar with Chinese politics. "It is possible that the leftist groups will make attacks on Wen, kicking out reform-minded politicians from the top."
Zhang Lifan , a political commentator formerly with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the power struggle would only grow stronger in coming days.
With Bo expelled from the political circle, factions were now likely to set their sights on other prominent figures, Zhang said.
"It is possible that some other top leaders may become the subject of attack," he said.
Meanwhile, The New York Times report suggested that Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing invested in a mobile payment company on whose board Wen's son has a seat.
Li's philanthropic foundation said in a statement yesterday that Li had donated his stake and dividends in the company to an education fund for Shantou University, which Li helped build, but did not mention the timing of the donation.