Chinese censors moved quickly on Monday to delete social media posts linked to a massive investigation that revealed the use of offshore tax havens that some high-ranking Chinese leaders and their families may have used to conceal their fortunes.
At least eight current or former members of the all-powerful Politburo standing committee are among the more than 140 political figures worldwide who are linked to the offshore tax havens, according to a global investigation into the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and more than 100 other news organizations.
Included in the names uncovered by the investigation are the brother-in-law of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Deng Jiagui, and the daughter of late former premier Li Peng, Li Xiaolin, the ICIJ reports.
According to the examination of some 11.5 million documents, Deng set up two British Virgin Islands companies in 2009, while Li and her husband Liu Zhiyuan were the beneficiaries of “Foundation Silo,” a Lichtenstein foundation that was the sole shareholder of “Cofic Investments Ltd.,” a company incorporated in the British Virgin Islands during Li Peng's tenure as premier.
Geneva-based lawyer Charles-Andre Junod, who was a director of Cofic Investments, declined to comment when contacted by the ICIJ, but said he has always respected relevant laws.
Li Xiaolin did not respond to repeated requests for comment, the report said.
Chinese censors strike quickly
Coming against a background of growing public anger at the huge fortunes and overseas passports accumulated by the country's ruling class, the ICIU revelations could embarrass China’s ruling elite, if the Chinese people could see the reports.
Chinese sensors took quick action to make that as difficult as possible as news articles and comments on the leaks were rapidly removed from China's tightly controlled Internet, despite being among the day's top search terms on the Twitter-like service Sina Weibo.
While Beijing’s censorship may have prevented most Chinese from seeing the reports, those who saw them weren’t easily fooled.
User @dabingzhanjiangci quipped: "By deleting posts at such speeds, they are admitting their guilt," while user @yikesaiting agreed. "All the posts have now been deleted. They really are showing their guilt," the user commented on one of the last remaining posts on the story on Monday.
Others called for more information on offshore dealings linked to China's leaders.
"Actually, I'd rather see reports about our own leaders in China," user @SFC-wule wrote, while user @dapianshoufa wrote: "Are there any from China? ... This must be fully investigated!"
The post they were commenting on was deleted soon afterwards, however, returning the message: "Sorry, there is an error with the page you visited, or it cannot be found."
Hebei-based veteran journalist Zhu Xinxin said the censorship of reports carrying the "Panama documents" hashtag on social media suggests a guilty conscience on the part of Chinese officials.
"Reports of this nature are extremely embarrassing [for the government], and they are terrified by them," Zhu said. "The fact that they have been deleting them and closing down accounts is testament to the truthfulness of those reports, there's no doubt about it."
While the ICIJ's report said it isn't illegal in itself to have an offshore company, the revelations are by no means the first to point to carefully hidden wealth linked to Chinese leaders and their families.
Not the first time
In 2012, China's Internet censors blocked access to the Bloomberg website after the news agency described in detail the multimillion-dollar assets of belonging to Xi's relatives while he was still vice-president.
According to U.S.-based economist Qin Weiping, the leaks show that President Xi's long-running anti-corruption campaign is unlikely to have scratched the surface of official corruption in China.
"All the anti-corruption campaign has done up till now is treat the symptoms, not the causes," Qin told RFA on Monday.
"The entire political and financial elite have been robbing ordinary Chinese people of wealth, right from the Politburo standing committee all the way down to the village level of government," he said. "This is an elite that has been built up over the past few decades; they're hardly going to start investigating their own behavior or opposing it.”
Chinese authorities have jailed dozens of activists in recent years for publicly calling on the government to reveal details of officials' wealth. Several high-profile members of the New Citizens' Movement are currently serving jail terms on public order offenses for anti-graft activism.
"They always do their utmost to cover up things like this,” Zhu said.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.