“Chinaleaks” stories censored in mainland China

Authorities block online access to ICIJ's exposé of Chinese elite's offshore holdings.

Chinese authorities moved aggressively on Tuesday and Wednesday to block online access to news reports exposing the secrecy-cloaked offshore holdings of China’s political and financial elites.

(Download a PDF of the investigation in Chinese here)

Internet censors prevented readers in China from seeing investigative stories by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and several of its publishing partners, including Spain’s El País, Le Monde, Süddeutsche Zeitung in Germany, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., and the U.K. and U.S. editions of The Guardian, according to reports from news organizations and analytics by GreatFire.org, which monitors web censorship in China.

China routinely censors online domestic content and blocks foreign social networking websites such as Twitter and Facebook, but the broad news blackout targeting so many international media outlets was unusual in its scope. Individual sites have been targeted in the past, including The New York Times and Bloomberg, which separately saw their sites blocked after releasing reports on elite wealth in China.

In Beijing, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Qin Gang dismissed the story calling it “hardly convincing” and said it raises “suspicions over the motives behind it."

ICIJ’s story was released in China early Wednesday and coincided with the trial of prominent Chinese legal advocate Xu Zhiyong, a campaigner for greater financial transparency. Xu could face up to five years in jail for activities linked to his campaign to get officials to publicly disclose their financial assets. In a symbolic protest against the proceedings, Xu and his attorneys refused to speak during the trial, the Washington Post reported.

The ICIJ stories are part of its continuing “Offshore Leaks” probe. They identify offshore companies controlled by many of China's most powerful men and women – including relatives of the Communist Party's top leaders, at least 15 of the country’s richest citizens, members of the National People’s Congress, and executives from state-owned companies tarred by corruption scandals. 

The reporting draws on previously secret records relating to nearly 22,000 offshore clients with addresses in mainland China and Hong Kong.

A check of www.ICIJ.org on the censoring monitoring website GreatFire.org at 3:42 a.m. Washington, D.C., time – 4:42 p.m. Beijing time – indicated that some Internet users in China could access the site, but 100 percent of them were blocked from reading ICIJ’s story about the offshore wealth of powerful Chinese. GreatFire.org also showed that 100 percent of mainland Internet users were blocked from reading a blog post about how the consortium conducted its six-month China investigation.

The Guardian reported that its website “appeared to be partially blocked” in China on Wednesday. “Repeated attempts to access the story from China failed without a virtual private network (VPN),” the paper said. “Some attempts to reach The Guardian’s front page failed and access to other, unrelated stories was intermittent.” 

ICIJ shared highlights of the Chinese version of the story and linked to the online pieces on Weibo, a Twitter-like Chinese social media website. But the ICIJ account was disabled within a few hours of the story’s release and could not be accessed again on Wednesday.

weibo blocked

Outside the mainland, the story is getting considerable media attention, with follow-up coverage from the Associated Press, Fox News, the Financial Times, Agence France‑Presse, Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald and other outlets. 

Time magazine called ICIJ’s planned Jan. 23 release of a searchable database with all of the nearly 22,000 names “an early Chinese New Year gift” for “anyone with an interest in the intersection of power and money in the People’s Republic.”

Government intimidation

High-level corruption and a massive wealth gap are sensitive issues inside China. The country’s Communist leadership has repeatedly sought to punish journalists who have exposed the hidden assets of top officials and their families.

In November, a mainland Chinese news outlet that had begun helping ICIJ sift through the offshore data pulled out of the reporting partnership, explaining that it had been instructed by the government to back off the story. ICIJ is keeping the identity of the news organization confidential to shield journalists from retaliation.

In reaction to the ICIJ teams’ China stories, Clark Gascoigne, a spokesperson for Global Financial Integrity, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, told Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post that “rising inequality is perhaps the most notable impact of offshore tax haven secrecy on China. As the rich get richer through tax evasion and by using the world’s shadow financial system to shelter and multiply their illicit wealth, the middle class, the working class and the nation's poor suffer.”

Since it began exposing the contents of secret tax haven files in late 2012 and early 2013, ICIJ's Offshore Leaks probe has sparked official investigations, policy changes and high-profile resignations in several countries, and has been credited by the European Union's top tax official with being “the most significant trigger” behind Europe’s new effort to combat offshore tax dodging. 

In the latest phase of the investigation, ICIJ analyzed documents relating to mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan in partnership with journalists from Ming Pao newspaper (Hong Kong), Commonwealth Magazine (Taiwan) and Süddeutsche Zeitung (Germany).

Along with the The Guardian, the CBC and El País, publishing partners for “Chinaleaks” stories include Le Monde (France), NDR (Germany), CBC (Canada), Le Soir (Belgium), L’Espresso (Italy), Le Matin Dimanche and SonntagsZeitung (Switzerland), Trouw (The Netherlands), the Asahi Shimbun (Japan), Newstapa (South Korea), The Global Mail (Australia) and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.

Homepage photo: Shutterstock

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