This time it’s the New York Times that has Chinese Internet censors raising the digital gates. Shortly after the publication of a lengthy article on Oct. 26 asserting that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s family members “have controlled assets worth at least $2.7 billion,” the media company’s English and Chinese websites were blocked within China. Then came the official government condemnation. “Some reports smear China and have ulterior motives,” foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a regular press briefing when asked about the censorship of the story. China’s Internet is managed “in accordance with laws,” the spokesman said.
This follows an earlier online clampdown on Bloomberg LP, which owns this website and Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. Both its website and that of Bloomberg Businessweek have been blocked since Bloomberg News published a report on June 29 detailing how the extended family of Vice President Xi Jinping came to control assets worth $376 million. Xi is expected to take over from Hu Jintao as China’s next top leader at a once-every-five year Party Congress, opening Nov. 8.
Censorship of foreign and Chinese media is nothing new in China. News reports that deal with everything from the Dalai Lama to the banned cult Falun Gong are regularly blocked from circulation, whether they appear in print, broadcast, or online. And the wealth of China’s top leaders has become a particularly sensitive topic, as the gap between China’s rich and poor grows more extreme and reports of officials or their families benefiting from their positions keep appearing.
For print publications, the censors have long tore out offending articles or stopped the distribution of whole publications. (Foreign print publications are distributed only in five-star hotels anyway.) News broadcasts that are deemed sensitive are often blocked too: The screen of a CNN or BBC broadcast (also usually available only in top-tier hotels and special housing compounds with large numbers of foreign residents) will go black for however long the report lasts. Then service is usually restored.
The rise of the vibrant Chinese net—with 538 million Chinese Internet users and 274 million individual weibo or microblog accounts—has certainly complicated things for China’s censors, however. That has led to something of a game of cat and mouse between Chinese who post comments and link to articles that have been blocked elsewhere, and censors who quickly scrub them from the Internet after finding them. With the publication of the latest New York Times article on the premier’s family wealth, the censors seem to be winning: All Weibo posts related to the piece are quickly being removed from the Web.
For now, the big question is whether the censorship will loosen up following the leadership transition that begins at the upcoming Party Congress. Censorship in China tends to increase close to big events, such as meetings between China’s heads of state and their U.S. counterparts, the 2008 Beijing Olympics, or a big political confab such as the Party Congress. But a more relaxed approach to media is unlikely as long as China’s officials and their families keep enriching themselves—even while insisting that is inappropriate. On Oct. 24, China’s Ministry of Supervision announced that more than 15,000 civil servants have been investigated for corruption, involving $3.6 billion, over the past five years.
“The frequent eruption of officials [in] scandals should not be seen in isolation, but can be better understood in terms of general social moral decay,” wrote Shanghai Daily commentator Wan Lixin on Oct. 26, not referring to the Wen family report. “In a society where money has become almost the only criterion for judging respectability, the meaning of life cannot but be defined by advertisements, glamour of celebrities and stars, LV bags, cars, and real estate. These aspirations fit nicely with tacit official exhortations for growth, almost at any cost.”