Willingly or Not, New York Times Used in Beijing

November 6, 2012 Updated: October 1, 2015
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao takes part in a press conference on March 14, 2012 in Beijing, China. For the past several years, Wen Jiabao is the only Chinese leader who made public statements promoting political reform. (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

An article published last week by The New York Times in English and Chinese was a bombshell dropped at a most sensitive time for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Whether The Times understood the article was a bombshell, and if so whether it was intended to damage one group or another, is not clear. Also unclear is whether The Times was either willingly or unwillingly used by those the article benefits.

The Times’ reporter claimed his innocence in a blog post. He said he writes on business and is no expert on China’s politics. He also said he personally did all of the research for the article, and none of the information in the article was fed to him.

The article detailed the alleged wealth of the family of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, which is claimed to be a fortune of US$2.7 billion. Immediately after publication, the premier said the article was inaccurate and hired lawyers.

In a Western democracy, such an article might be an embarrassment for a politician for a few days, but would have no real political impact. Things are different in China.

The wealth of the top officials of the CCP is a very sensitive subject. Most of those officials have gotten obscenely rich in the past few decades, and they all understand the Chinese people, whose standards of living have been suppressed in order to promote China’s export-based economy, will hate them for the wealth they have acquired.

In exposing Wen Jiabao’s alleged wealth, the article weakens him politically at the moment just before the 18th Party Congress convenes on Nov. 8. At that Congress, new leadership will be announced.

For the past several years, Wen Jiabao is the only Chinese leader who made public statements promoting political reform, while Jiang’s faction, including Zhou Yongkang and Bo Xilai, is responsible for persecuting Falun Gong and many other human rights abuses.

By busying the Chinese premier with trying to clear his name, the faction led by Jiang Zemin now hopes to regain some of the power it has lost as a result of the Wang Lijun-Bo Xilai scandal.

Following the revelation by Wang that Bo Xilai and others had plotted a coup, the current head of the CCP, Hu Jintao, and Wen Jiabao, had been able to diminish the power of Jiang’s faction. Now that faction, courtesy of The New York Times, has tried to fight back.

Getting Assistance

In the West, if a reporter wants to investigate an official, the reporter simply chooses the most likely target and begins. In China, things are more complicated.

There are so many corrupt officials, some of them in very high positions, how does one pick the right candidate? Some Chinese friends could give suggestions and do so without ever feeding detailed information to the reporter. Some could give clues to start the investigation; some could arrange a conversation with the right person; some could help avoid unnecessary trouble with authorities.

After a reporter has a target, conducting the investigation is not easy. In China, there is no clear line between public information and state secrets. In many cases, the release of public information can be punished as releasing state secrets.

For instance, after Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun attempted to defect at the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu in February, Wang Lijun was taken to Beijing. The E-tickets used by Wang and several state security agents were made available on the internet, and several international media outlets used the information to confirm Wang was taken to Beijing.

The person who posted the information was recently put on seven days administrative detention for “releasing state security, work-related secrets.” However, with the E-ticket number and passenger name, anyone can check the authenticity of an E-ticket on China TravelSky Holding Company.

To conduct an almost one-year-long investigation of one of the most powerful men in China without the authorities noticing or interfering—this can only be the result of a miracle or the help of the security forces at the top level.

Why Wen and Xi

There are only two members of the Politburo Standing Committee—the small group of men who run the CCP—who have openly criticized Bo Xilai, the now disgraced Politburo member who was the standard bearer for the faction of former CCP head Jiang Zemin. Wen Jiabao and Xi Jinping, the presumptive next head of the CCP, are those two, and they are the only two whose wealth has been the subject of exposés in the Western media.

Wen criticized Bo Xilai in his press conference at the close of the National People’s Congress by saying that without political reform the Cultural Revolution could happen again in China. Most people in China believe that Bo Xilai’s policies in Chongqing were an imitation of the Cultural Revolution.

The wealth of Xi Jinping was detailed in a June 29 report in Bloomberg. His opposition to Bo was revealed in a Reuters article in September, which quoted him as saying he was no friend of Bo Xilai. Bo should be dealt with according to Party discipline and Chinese law, Xi also said. Not coincidentally, Bo has posed the greatest threat to Xi, not to the current leadership.

While Wen Jiabao and Xi Jinping have had their wealth investigated, many other powerful Party families, whose reputations are much worse, and who are far richer than Wen or Xi, have not had their wealth investigated by reporters.

No one, for instance, would spend one year investigating the wealth of security czar Zhou Yongkang. He is almost untouchable, because the security agents would never allow the investigation to go forward. Similarly, no one has investigated the wealth of Bo Xilai—probably because the secret police would not cooperate.

Using International Media

CCP leaders have often used foreign journalists, either to help the Party or for their own personal gain. When the Red Army was still living in caves of northern China during the war against Japan, Edgar Snow wrote his biography of Mao, Red Star Over China, and Agnes Smedley wrote the biography of the army’s commander-in-chief, The Great Road: The Life and Times of Chu Teh. These books were effective public relations for the CCP.

During this year’s Wang Lijun-Bo Xilai scandal, or even before that, there was an information war between the Jiang Zemin faction and those loyal to Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao.

Both sides used international media, both Chinese and English, to expose skeletons hiding in the other side’s closet, to test the waters, to evaluate public opinion, and to lead or mislead public opinion. Some of the information was factual and confirmed much later by official releases. Some of the information was totally fabricated.

Almost all of the information was fed to reporters, with very little, if any at all, the result of investigation. However, some information could have changed the course of the power struggle.

Corruption as a Weapon

Today, accusations of corruption are routinely used as political weapons. It was not always like that in communist China.

During the Mao era, there was no need to find excuses to crush the “enemies.” The accusation of counter-revolutionary sufficed for all cases. As for Deng Xiaoping, even though he was not as powerful as Mao, he still didn’t need any excuse to oust Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, the right and left hands of his reform.

However, when Jiang Zemin took power, nobody even listened to him. He needed to create a new system and personal authority. What he did was to encourage and promote corruption while selectively using accusations of corruption to get rid of his opponents.

Putting Chen Xitong, then the secretary of the CCP Beijing Committee, in jail was the first time that Jiang used this weapon. Hu Jintao used the same weapon to put Chen Liangyu, then the secretary of the CCP Shanghai Committee, in jail. Both Chen Xitong and Chen Liangyu were members of the Politburo and both had considered posing a challenge to the Party leadership.

If their cases had happened in Mao or Deng’s times, both would have been characterized as struggles for power or between ideological lines, not as corruption. Today’s Bo Xilai case is similar. Even though the real reason behind the crimes charged against Bo is his back-to-the-Mao-era ideology and practice, he has mostly been charged with corruption.

Whatever the background may be of The New York Times and Bloomberg articles, they will be used as a weapon against those who played the most important role in ousting Bo Xilai and the Jiang faction. During a power struggle at the top of the Party, any move made by the other side must be treated seriously, and a counter measure must be taken immediately.

A slow reaction or no reaction at all would be considered weakness. When Bo Xilai claimed that “Hu Jintao would go to Chongqing” during the Chongqing media day at the National People’s Congress, he made his move. The response was the announcement seven days later that Bo was no longer the Chongqing Party chief.

Most Chinese people don’t have access to Bloomberg or The New York Times, and most readers of these two media have no influence on Chinese politics. Yet, the reaction to the articles will be closely monitored by allies, enemies, and anyone in between. This applies to both sides of the power struggle.

Zhou Yongkang, who represents the interest of Bo Xilai and the Jiang Zemin faction, doesn’t want people to think he has completely lost power. Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao, and Xi Jinping don’t want people to think the situation is not totally under their control.


Editor’s Note: When Chongqing’s former top cop, Wang Lijun, fled for his life to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu on Feb. 6, he set in motion a political storm that has not subsided. The battle behind the scenes turns on what stance officials take toward the persecution of Falun Gong. The faction with bloody hands—the officials former CCP head Jiang Zemin promoted in order to carry out the persecution—is seeking to avoid accountability for their crimes and to continue the campaign. Other officials are refusing any longer to participate in the persecution. Events present a clear choice to the officials and citizens of China, as well as people around the world: either support or oppose the persecution of Falun Gong. History will record the choice each person makes.

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