Lawyers for Premier Wen Jiabao's family last night hit back at The New York Times for its explosive exposé about their wealth - the first time a top Chinese leader has issued a rebuttal to a foreign media report.
Two lawyers released a statement on behalf of Wen's family shortly before 11pm denying, among other things, that the premier's 90-year-old mother ever held a US$120 million investment in Ping An Insurance, a central claim of the Times' report.
In fact, the lawyers said, Wen's mother, Yang Zhiyun, had "never had other income or property" except for her government salary and pension. The claim was a critical element of the newspaper's article, which estimated that Wen's extended family controlled a fortune of at least US$2.7 billion.
"The so-called 'hidden riches' of Wen Jiabao's family members in The New York Times' report does not exist," said the statement, first obtained by the Sunday Morning Post.
The New York Times published an article on its website on Sunday defending the exposé on Wen after reading the lawyers' statement in the Post. "We are standing by our story, which we are incredibly proud of," said Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Times.
The lawyers, Bai Tao and Wang Weidong, said they would continue to "make clarifications regarding other untrue reports" by the newspaper and reserved the right to hold it "legally responsible". It is believed that the statement has also been sent to the Times, but the paper had not responded to a request for comment as of early this morning.
The lawyers' statement said, "Wen Jiabao has never played any role in the business activities of his family members", adding that "his family members' business activities to have any influence on his formulation and execution of policies".
Although the Times' report detailed how several companies connected to Wen's family members had benefited from state action during Wen's, it never explicitly accused the leader of intervening on their behalf. The story said it found "no indication" he had. The story also did not allege any of the activities it described could be considered illegal, saying that loopholes in regulations allow the family members of senior officials "to trade on their family name". The paper said its findings were reviewed by "outside auditors".
The lawyer's statement did not list any member of Wen's family by name and did not, for instance, respond to claims about the dealings of Wen's wife Zhang Beili's diamond empire or son Wen Yunsong's lucrative business deals with state-run enterprises like China Mobile.
"Some were engaged in business activities, but they did not carry out any illegal business activity," the lawyers' statement said. "They do not hold shares of any companies."
Political observers both in China and overseas said it was rare for Chinese state leaders to openly deny overseas media reports, but Wen was keen to protect his image as the "people's premier" and "Grandpa Wen".
" The New York Times report is very damaging to the reputation of Wen Jiabao," said Steve Tsang, a China watcher at the University of Nottingham. "What Wen Jiabao's image is domestically in China is much more important to Wen."
Statement from the lawyers for Wen Jiabao’s family
The so-called "hidden riches" of Wen Jiabao's family members in The New York Times' report does not exist.
Some of Wen Jiabao's family members have not engaged in business activities. Some were engaged in business activities, but they did not carry out any illegal business activity. They do not hold shares of any companies.
The mother of Wen Jiabao, except receiving salary/pension according to the regulation, has never had any income or property.
Wen Jiabao has never played any role in the business activities of his family members, still less has he allowed his family members' business activities to have any influence on his formulation and execution of policies.
Other relatives of Wen Jiabao and the "friends" and "colleagues" of those relative are responsible for all their own business activities.
- We will continue to make clarifications regarding untrue reports by The New York Times, and reserve the right to hold it legally responsible.