China vs the Panama Papers: Delete, Divert, Defend

The publication this month of investigations based on the so-called Papers has sparked a varied and vigorous response from China’s censors and propagandists. Among the 11.5 million documents leaked from Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm specializing in setting up offshore shell companies, some link relatives of eight current and former Politburo Standing Committee members to legal but politically embarrassing hidden financial dealings. Among them is Deng Jiagui, brother-in-law of President Xi Jinping. The wealth of leaders’ families is an immensely sensitive topic, and past exposés have triggered aggressive retaliation against their publishers.

One aspect of the response this time has been the familiar deployment of media directives and search blocks and content deletions in both social and traditional media. Asked last week about the lack of domestic news coverage, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman responded “you can ask the media, not me,” according to The Guardian’s Tom Phillips. (Five related questions in total were omitted from official press briefing transcripts last week, he noted.) In terms of foreign media coverage, The Guardian’s reports were blocked online, while BBC and CNN broadcasts were disrupted. On Tuesday, monitors GreatFire.org reported that blogging platform Medium is now blocked, commenting “blame 巴拿马 [Panama].” The state-owned Global Times republished some English-language reports from Western agencies, but none mentioned the leaks’ China-related content.

The news blackout has not been total, but Baidu News searches for Mossack Fonseca (莫薩克馮賽卡) in Latin script and Chinese produce only a handful of results. One relays AFP reporting on the CIA’s use of the company’s services. Apolitical stories on celebrities mentioned in the documents, like Taiwanese entertainer Nicky Wu and soccer star Lionel Messi, have at times dominated search results.

Beyond selective reporting on the Panama Papers themselves, some have voiced suspicion that unrelated viral stories have been hyped as distractions. One suspect was an assault on a woman at a Beijing hotel. Bystanders’ failure to intervene touched a familiar nerve, attracting billions of page views, millions of comments, and heavy media coverage even after the suspect’s capture, according to Liu Willow Jiang at Global Voices. Jiang translated some skeptical commentary from Sina Weibo:

This breaking news went viral after being reposted by many red-tainted commercial accounts and duly provoked public discussion. Is it intended to sidetrack attention from the incident in Panamaaaa [a typo [巴拿瑪 vs 巴拿马] to circumvent Weibo’s hyper-sensitive word filter]? The people caught up in the scandal are important Chinese leaders, if the public ignores the event, then no further explanation is needed. That is upsetting. [Source]

That’s the typical way to divert public attention. Obviously if the media is overwhelmingly reporting this news item, then people won’t focus on the 8NAMA [a typo to circumvent Weibo’s hyper-sensitive word filter] incident. [Source]

On other fronts, officials and have tried to discredit the leaks by questioning their authenticity or the motives of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which coordinated the investigations. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei hinted at both when he dismissed the reports’ “groundless accusations.” (The ICIJ-led group has carefully avoided accusations of wrongdoing. Foreign Minister Wang Yi later appealed to pending “explanations and clarifications” from Panama, saying: “I’m afraid we first must get clarity and understand what it’s really about.”) A leaked provincial-level censorship directive published by CDT warned websites that “if material from foreign media attacking China is found on any website, it will be dealt with severely.” One currently uncensored news report notes U.S. government funding for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, which also participated in the project.

The foreign hostility narrative has been enthusiastically adopted by , whose international coverage was recently criticized as “very extreme and narrow-minded” by former ambassador Wu Jianmin. In a string of editorials, the newspaper suggested that the documents had been fabricated or manipulated to serve American interests:

The Western media has taken control of the interpretation each time there has been such a document dump, and Washington has demonstrated particular influence in it. Information that is negative to the US can always be minimized, while exposure of non-Western leaders, such as Putin, can get extra spin.

[…] It is risky to claim the leaked information is fabricated. It can be predicted that such disclosure will not survive if it embarrasses the West. But the West will be happy to see such leaks happen if their opponents are attacked. [Source]

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists examining the Panama Papers was launched as a project of the Center for Public Integrity whose independence has been questioned. Very few US public figures were exposed by the Panama Papers, which may be related to the political awareness of the forces behind the leak.

More importantly, whether the journalists investigating the Panama Papers include those serving the US intelligence agencies as fake reporters is a question. The larger the amount of documents, the more room will be available for intelligence manipulation and the more destructive the fabricated documents will be. Global information has inherent Western political elements. In the Internet era, the US is very capable of fighting the war of public opinion. Though it cannot be asserted that most documents of Panama Papers are false, examining the Panama Papers with prudence is of vital necessity. [Source]

The Great Firewall is a system that filters and blocks harmful or unsafe information. It has caused some inconvenience when China and the outside world try to understand each other, but they have gradually adapted to this reality.

[…] Western media have published major political reports that concern China in recent years, trying to direct the attention of Chinese society and set the discourse agenda for us. The Great Firewall has snuffed out such intentions.

History will positively assess the key role of the system. […] [Source]

The ICIJ’s Gerard Ryle addressed some of these insinuations in an interview with WNYC’s On The Media, describing claims from other quarters that the project is a -orchestrated plot to embarrass America’s enemies as “laughable.”

A fourth approach which appears to have been tentatively explored and then abandoned is defense. An anonymous post published first overseas, then on Jiemian News, a Party-controlled site, and later on Tencent’s major news portal, argued directly that even if the leaked documents are real, they show no wrongdoing on the part of Xi or his brother-in-law. (Again, none has been alleged by the ICIJ or its partners.) Translated by CDT’s Anne Henochowicz:

According to internationally accepted laws and ethical standards, one must be held solely responsible for one’s own actions. If a husband commits a crime, the wife is not guilty. If a father commits a crime, the son is not guilty. If an older sister commits a crime, her younger brother is not guilty. If the older sister’s husband commits a crime, her younger brother is not guilty. That President Xi’s brother-in-law opened a company ought to have nothing to do with Xi. [This principle has not been extended to those suspected of involvement in a recent open letter calling for Xi’s resignation.]

But a national leader should have higher standards. This is demanded by the masses, and is in sync with international ethical standards. Therefore President Xi stated at an anti-corruption meeting, “You must keep an eye on your relatives, and make sure they don’t use power for their own personal gain.”

[…] Let’s assume the Panama Papers are highly truthful. They have leaked three pieces of information: (1) Deng Jiagui lawfully opened two offshore companies. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which released the papers, has clearly stated that opening an offshore company does not violate any law.

(2) Looking at the data, the two companies left no sign of practical operation. That is to say there was no tax evasion or money laundering, let alone abuse of power for personal gain.

(3) The companies closed before President Xi assumed office. Some reports state they ceased operation, but since they never operated to begin with, it’s more credible to say they closed. From this we can see that, since [Xi’s] brother-in-law’s companies violated no law, there are no indications or evidence of abuse of power. The divulgence that arrived too late for the Panama Papers is that President Xi managed this early on, and managed it effectively. [Source]

CDT founder Xiao Qiang comments that “this seems a carefully calculated countermeasure to publicly defend Xi for the Panama Paper event.” If so, those behind it swiftly backtracked, and the article was deleted: “Either it was not fully coordinated with other censor departments, or the impact [was] not what they desired. This is the pattern of events under Xi in the past three years. This is just the latest example.”

Updated at 14:25 PDT on Apr 13, 2016: China Media Project’s David Bandurski also comments on the Jiemian article and broader uncertainty across China’s media landscape at Medium:

Was this an attempt from certain quarters to leap to the defence of and his brother-in-law, Deng Jiagui, who has been linked to offshore accounts? Could it perhaps have been a test, as Beijing seeks a way to downplay the revelations, which also have touched Liu Yunshan and Zhang Gaoli?

Or was it, as Hong Kong 01 has suggested, possibly even an attempt, disguised as a defence, to make an offensive play against senior Party leaders?

Almost two months after Xi Jinping struck a severe note by saying all media must be “surnamed Party,” falling in line with the core leadership — are we seeing signs of fragmentation?

Your guess is as good as mine. [Source]