China's Internet censors deleted a favorable blog post analyzing the links between relatives of the country's president, Xi Jinping, and papers leaked from the Panama-based Mossack Fonseca law firm.
The blog post appeared on an overseas blog, and was later reposted by the Shanghai-based news website Jiemian, which is owned by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, and Internet portal Tencent, before censors deleted it.
Media insiders said the post, which argued that Xi had "managed his relatives' affairs well" before taking power as president, was likely penned by officials at the highest level.
"Of course this blog post was authorized,” a journalist surnamed Yi at a party-backed news organization told RFA. “You have no idea how much Xi is micromanaging the media and propaganda departments right now.”
‘It’s pretty lame’
"Jiemian is an official news site, and media like that wouldn't normally dare put out anything like that [without authorization]," Yi added. "Why did they delete it? Haha, I have no idea, but it's pretty lame.”
The massive leak of 11.5 million files from Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca has revealed details of the operations and ultimate, hidden ownership of a slew of offshore shell companies owned by the relatives of high-ranking Chinese leaders.
Included in the stash of leaked document are details of an offshore shell company set up by Xi's brother-in-law Deng Jiagui in the British Virgin Islands.
The blog post took as its starting point the assumption that the Panama Papers are genuine, before arguing that the companies linked to Deng had never operated, and that there was no wrongdoing involved.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which published the Panama Papers, has also repeatedly said that no wrongdoing is alleged on the part of beneficiaries of offshore companies.
"The records show no sign of any operations, which means that no tax evasion or abuse of power took place," it said.
A second journalist, operating within the state-controlled Chinese media, who gave only the surname Wang, also said the original blog post must have been the work of the government.
"They are feeling a huge amount of pressure [over the Panama Papers] and the government felt it was necessary to push back a bit," Wang said.
"If they had put it in [the party-controlled] People's Daily or Xinhua news agency, that would have been too official, so they used a market-oriented, new media organization like Jiemian to do it," he said.
From the top
He said the post was likely deleted because it had already done its job.
"They put this article out, let a limited number of people see it, and then they deleted it," Wang said. "There's no way that [Jiemian] would have had the authority to publish it without authorization [from the top]."
"This article could only have been written by Xi's office, otherwise the central propaganda department would never have told Jiemian to run it."
An editor at a major Chinese news website surnamed Liu said he didn't believe Jiemian could have published the article without being ordered to do so either.
"I don't think that's at all likely ... They would have been authorized to do it at the highest level," Liu said. "Then they deleted it because they couldn't have it plainly out in the open."
Since the emergence of the Panama Papers leak, Chinese censors have been fighting to ensure the top-down deletion of information that details how Chinese high-ranking political and financial elites managed and hid their wealth offshore.
Propaganda departments have issued a string of directives in recent days banning media organizations from publishing independent reporting or commentary based on the leaks.
An employee who answered the phone at Jiemian's editorial offices in Shanghai on Wednesday declined to comment, saying they didn't know about the story.
Cyberspace Administration pays a visit
However, an employee at the website's Beijing office said officials from the central propaganda department and the Cyberspace Administration had visited the office in the morning. "I don't know what they were here for," the employee said.
A Chinese scholar surnamed Sun, who has followed the Panama Papers leaks closely, said Beijing is unlikely to be as worried about them as some national leaders, however.
"Actually, China doesn't really care about this sort of thing, because they can block this sort of news," Sun said. "They just refuse to comment on groundless reports, as we have heard, because there are no checks and balances on their power."
"Who is going to demand that they resign ... like the prime minister of Iceland did, or give them trouble like the U.K. prime minister? There is no way to do that [in China]," Sun said.
Reported by Dai Weisen for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.