The unprecedented statement defending the family of Premier Wen Jiabao against allegations concerning their wealth was a chance for the leadership to tackle corruption that lies at the heart of the Communist Party's legitimacy crisis, political analysts say.
Wen should seize the opportunity to disclose his own and his relatives' assets, setting an example for other leaders, which would give a boost to long-stalled efforts to pass "sunshine laws" obliging senior officials to declare their assets, they said yesterday.
The New York Times said Wen family members, including his mother, wife and two children, controlled at least US$2.7 billion worth of assets, accumulated during Wen's time in office.
"Given the fact his image and that of his family are at stake, it is unlikely the lawyers' statement represents a consensus or any collective decision of the entire leadership," said Zhu Lijia, a professor from the Chinese Academy of Governance.
Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based political analyst, said the image-conscious premier, who had always boasted a "clean" image, had no choice but to fight back.
"The Times' report has forced Wen's hand … Of course the best way to dismiss allegations is for Wen to become the first mainland leader to disclose his personal assets," Zhang said.
Both analysts noted that when the family of Vice-President Xi Jinping was subject to similar attacks in June by Bloomberg he kept quiet.
"Xi apparently chose to bide his time as the leader-in-waiting while Wen, who will step down next year, chose to fight as he has nothing much to lose," Zhang said.
Zhang believes the expose was triggered by Wen's political rivals as part of a long-planned campaign. The outgoing premier has been plagued for years by claims about the business interests of his wife and children.
Analysts said the exposé added further uncertainty to the transfer of power, which has already been marred by scandals, including the downfall of former Politburo member Bo Xilai and various rumours about leadership splits.
"By taking action against The Times, Wen is actually targeting the people who tipped off the newspaper," said Gu Su, a Nanjing University law professor.
Gu said the statement indicated Wen was determined to preserve his image as an open and reform-minded leader and to send a message he was not afraid to take legal action when it came to his reputation and integrity.
But analysts admit it remains unclear if Beijing would back Wen if he did want to make public his assets, as it would pressure other leaders to follow suit.
Noting that public declarations of personal assets are commonplace internationally as an effective way to tackle official corruption, Zhu said the country had moved little over the past two decades on the "sunshine laws" due to opposition from vested interests and corrupt officials.
"Public patience is running out because corruption, especially at the top, has become a key source of public discontent and unrest and poses a serious threat to one-party rule," he said.
But Professor Hu Xingdou, another Beijing-based analyst, believes The Times' exposé may further delay declarations of officials' personal assets. "Wen may have wanted to push for an early disclosure of assets but his credibility and authority have taken a big hit from the allegations, which virtually dealt a blow to the pro-reformist camp," he said.
Additional reporting by Teddy Ng and Choi Chi-yuk