Photographer: China Photos via Getty Images

Xi Article That Touches on the Taboo Lives for Few Hours on Web

  • Posting praising handling of family financial affairs deleted
  • Rare mention of leaked relevations about offshore holdings

Censors removed an anonymous posting on a Chinese news portal that defended President Xi Jinping over family members named in the Panama leaks as having offshore holdings, highlighting the sensitivity to discussion of the wealth of the country’s leaders.

The post entitled "Did Chief Xi Manage Children and Relatives Well or Not?" argued the president and Communist Party head had nothing to fear from the revelations in documents leaked from a law firm in Panama. It was published on several online news portals and circulated on social media before disappearing several hours later.

"The Panama Papers have not unveiled any material detrimental to Chief Xi -- they rather proved that Xi had started to manage his relatives several years before the leaks and got things under control," said the post, which was published at 5 p.m. Tuesday on the Shanghai-based website Jiemian. "It makes no sense to use the Panama Papers to criticize Chief Xi."

The move to scrub the article attributed to an "overseas blog" reflects concern about any information that might undermine Xi’s authority as he lays the groundwork for a reshuffle of the party leadership next year. Under his watch China has embarked on a massive anti-graft campaign while curbing dissent as it grapples with the slowest growth in a quarter century.

China’s censors have quickly wiped any mention of Chinese links to the Panama leaks since news organizations affiliated with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists began publishing reports earlier this month. The reports, based on a cache of leaked documents, alleged law firm Mossack Fonseca helped set up anonymous shell companies around the world to hide wealth for politicians and the ultra-rich.

Largely Silent

Aside from one editorial assessing the leaks as likely to provide fodder to criticize non-Western nations, China’s state-run media has been largely silent and online searches related to the leaks have been blocked.

The Jiemian post was soon published by dozens of other new portals, including Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s influential QQ. Jiemian was founded last year as a joint venture between newspaper publisher Shanghai United Media Group and investors including Guotai Junan Securities Co. and Xiaomi Corp., according to its website. Calls to Jiemian’s offices in Beijing and Shanghai were unanswered.

Dali Yang, a political science professor and director of the University of Chicago Center in Beijing, attributed the posting to either a "well-intended move by an upstart media outlet" or a "carefully calculated" effort to counter public angst over the Panama leaks.  

‘Clearly Designed’

"The information contained in the piece is known, but the way it was pulled together was clearly designed to defend Xi," Yang said, adding the "brief availability has already achieved its purpose."

Recent weeks have seen a handful of sensitive political documents posted on the Internet, even as Xi increases pressure on state media to toe the party line. At least 20 people were detained last month after the state-backed Wujie News website published a letter calling on Xi to resign, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported.

The ICIJ reports showed that Deng Jiagui -- husband to Xi’s sister, Qi Qiaoqiao -- was a shareholder in two British Virgin Islands companies. Bloomberg News reported in 2012 that Deng and Qi had hundreds of millions of dollars in real estate, shares and other assets. 

There have been signs that Deng and Qi moved to divest at least some of their wealth before Xi took power in November 2012. Deng told Bloomberg that year he was retired. ICIJ said the two BVI companies associated with him were made inactive before May 2011.

The post probably perpetuated speculation over the Xi family’s wealth, despite its attempt to clarify his role in the matter, said Qiao Mu, a professor of media studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

"This apparent floor-washing effort at clarification on behalf of the leader proved to be counterproductive," Qiao said. "It’s like trying to wipe off black ink, but ending up blacker."