Wen Family Lawyers Challenge New York Times Exposé

Lawyers for the family of Wen Jiabao have issued a statement on David Barboza’s investigation of their business dealings and reported $2.7 billion fortune, published on Friday at The New York Times. According to the statement, obtained by the South China Morning Post, “the so-called ‘hidden riches’ of Wen Jiabao’s family members in The New York Times’ report does not exist …. We will continue to make clarifications regarding untrue reports by The New York Times, and reserve the right to hold it legally responsible.”

The lawyers claimed that those of Wen’s relatives who have engaged in business activities have done nothing illegal, and hold no shares in any companies; that his mother has never received any income or property besides her regular salary and pension; and that Wen himself has never interceded on their behalf or allowed policies to be affected by his family’s financial interests. Several points addressed statements not made in the Times article. “In fact,” wrote Donald Clarke at China Law Prof Blog, “the statement disputes remarkably little […. T]he lawyers’ statement really challenges only one specific assertion – that Wen’s mother is a multi-millionaire – and one general assertion – that several of his relatives own shares in various corporations.” From Keith Bradsher’s report on the statement at The New York Times:

The statement was not a sweeping denial of the article. The statement acknowledged that some family members were active in business and that they “are responsible for all their own business activities.”

While the statement disputed that Mr. Wen’s mother had held assets, it did not address the calculation in the article that the family had controlled assets worth at least $2.7 billion.

Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for The Times, expressed confidence in the article. “We are standing by our story, which we are incredibly proud of and which is an example of the quality investigative journalism The Times is known for,” she wrote in an e-mail.

The lawyers’ statement represents an unusual move for the family of a senior Chinese leader. When Bloomberg News published an article in late June describing real estate and other assets held by the family of Vice President Xi Jinping, his family did not respond publicly.

(See CDT’s coverage of the Bloomberg article and subsequent censorship.)

Speaking with Simon Rabinovitch of The Financial Times, the Brookings Institution’s Cheng Li said that this “unprecedented” response is encouraging: “Wen Jiabao is behaving differently from other Chinese leaders. His reaction can potentially be a positive example.” At the South China Morning Post, Shi Jiangtao discussed the different reactions to the two investigations, and the Times article’s possible impact on transparency reforms:

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 [Zhang and Zhu Lijia, of the Chinese Academy of Governance] 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.

Experts consulted by the Post’s Keith Zhai felt that the statement’s threat of legal action against the Times would probably come to nothing:

He Weifang, a law expert at Peking University, said the statement was more of a gesture than a substantial legal document. “It was a demonstration of the attitude of a single party [the Wen family], intended to show the Chinese public that [The New York Times] report wasn’t factually correct,” He said.

If the Wen family does take the Times to court, it could be a formidable undertaking.

“Then the case would get bigger … and even out of control,” He said. “Based on this rationale, I reckon it’s not likely [the Wen family] would sue The Times.”

[…] Pu Zhiqiang, a Beijing-based civil rights lawyer specialising in press freedom and defamation cases, said the statement was more like a declaration of innocence. “It’s understandable why the family asked the lawyers to make the statement, but to me it didn’t say anything. It’s more like a public oath or some act of public relations.”

At IHT Rendezvous, Mark McDonald described Chinese authorities’ efforts to stifle discussion of Barboza’s report, citing CDT’s Sensitive Words post on blocked weibo search terms. Delivery in China of the the hard-copy Tribune carrying the article, meanwhile, was variable. From NPR’s Louisa Lim and the Los Angeles Times’ Julie Makinen:

For more on fallout from the investigation, see ‘New York Times Wen Exposé Makes Waves‘ at CDT.