Leaked information about an intricate network of thousands of offshore companies linked to the ruling Chinese Communist Party leadership is likely only the tip of the iceberg, political analysts said on Thursday.
According to a report published this week by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), "close relatives of China’s top leaders have held secretive offshore companies in tax havens that helped shroud the Communist elite’s wealth."
The report cited "some estimates" as saying that between U.S. $1 trillion and U.S. $4 trillion in untraced assets are believed to have relocated overseas since 2000, although it gave no estimate based on the leaked documents themselves.
The group also stressed that it was not suggesting anyone named has "broken the law or otherwise acted improperly."
The ICIJ findings uncovered a real estate company co-owned by current President Xi Jinping’s brother-in-law and British Virgin Islands companies set up by former Premier Wen Jiabao’s son and son-in-law.
The massive investigation counted a total of 22,000 offshore clients with addresses in mainland China and Hong Kong.
Xia Ming, political science lecturer at the College of Staten Island in New York, said details in the report could still only be the tip of the iceberg, however.
"In the past few decades, Chinese Communist Party leaders have vowed to stick resolutely to the path of [economic] reforms, while some good people hope that China will take the path of freedom and democracy," Xia said.
"Actually, [China's leadership] has done neither. In less than a generation, the highest-ranking Chinese leaders have become the wealthiest people in China, mixing political and economic power together in a crime of massive proportions," he said.
The clients cited in the ICIJ report include at least 15 of the richest people in China, as well as members of the rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), and executives from state-owned companies entangled in corruption scandals.
The investigation also showed that well-known Western banks and accounting firms have played a key role in moving Chinese assets offshore.
Among those that helped Chinese clients set up trusts and companies in the British Virgin Islands, Samoa, and other offshore havens were PricewaterhouseCoopers and UBS, it said.
It said Swiss financial company Credit Suisse had helped the son of former premier Wen Jiabao set up his British Virgin Islands-incorporated company while his father was still in office.
ICIJ said its information came from a vast cache of documents leaked from Singapore-based Portcullis TrustNet and British Virgin Islands-based Commonwealth Trust.
"The data illustrates the outsized dependency of the world’s second largest economy on tiny islands thousands of miles away," the report said.
It said China's transition from socialist-style command economy to a hybrid market system meant that almost every sector of economic activity, from oil and renewables to arms dealing and mining is represented offshore.
Veteran Hong Kong journalist Mak Yin-ting said part of the problem lies with a lack of public openness about official wealth inside China itself.
"The problem lies with the fact that there is no transparency in China, so there are no channels for oversight," said Mak, a vocal press freedom campaigner in the former British colony. "Power and money are bound up together."
"When this is added to the fact that offshore companies don't require transparency about people's identities or about those of their shareholders, it gets even easier for corruption to exist and thrive," she said.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said that "ulterior motives" may have underpinned the investigation.
Asked at a regular news briefing if the government planned to follow up on the report, he replied: "What I want to point out is, the clean will be proved clean and the dirty will be proved dirty."
Sichuan-based rights activist Huang Qi, who founded the Tianwang rights website, said the practice of opening offshore bank accounts was now "endemic" throughout party and government.
He said the report had provided another piece in the jigsaw for Chinese citizens trying to gain an accurate picture of the dealings of government officials and their families.
"Only by investigating fully a range of corruption cases can we ensure that China proceeds any further on a path towards democracy and the rule of law, and doesn't end up in various kinds of social chaos," Huang said.
"Xi Jinping said that there would be no mercy for corruption, so I think he should start close to home, with his own relatives," he said.
Meanwhile, Xia said he believes that the Chinese Communist Party now no longer stands for any ideological goals at all.
"Everything they do is aimed at protecting their ill-gotten gains using force and violence," he said.
"Of course, they're not going to leave the loot at the scene of the crime, which is China," Xia added.
"Whichever way you look at it, China's most powerful people have already lost all confidence in the future."
Reported by He Ping for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.