An explosive story about the massive wealth accumulated by the family of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao caused the Chinese government to block the website of the New York Times early Friday morning, just days before a sensitive once-in-a-decade transition of power from Wen and others to a new generation of leaders.
The article documents assets controlled by Wen's family worth at least $2.7 billion, a shocking figure even in a country where government corruption is rampant and popular resentment against the elite has increased in recent years. The scandal also complicates the apparent intention of Chinese leaders to tackle corruption as a main issue at the Nov. 8 party congress, a move they have been signaling in the wake of other scandals that had dramatically shaken the party's core leadership.
This month, the party took the rare step of accusing another prominent leader, Bo Xilai, of alleged massive corruption and wealth, but only as it began the process of purging him. He had a central role in China's biggest political scandal in the past two decades, which involved the murder of a British businessman.
On Friday morning, China formally expelled Bo from the country's top legislature, the National People's Congress, where he was a deputy.
Wen is an especially vulnerable figure to charges of corruption because he has carefully cultivated an image as a benevolent figure who is trying to push the system toward greater reform. The wealth of Wen's family, especially of his son and wife, has long been the subject of rumors. His wife was known among political watchers and reform activists for her ownership of a diamond business. But their holdings had not previously been documented in such detail.
In recent years, the slowing economy and a growing rich-poor gap, which has stalled many Chinese families' efforts to climb into the middle class, have exacerbated public resentment of officials who are often able to operate on an entirely different level in business because of their connections.
In June, Bloomberg News reported that the extended family of Vice President Xi Jinping, who is poised to take over as president, had amassed $376 million. Government censors, apparently spooked, took the unusual step of not just censoring online discussion of the story but shutting down Chinese access to the Bloomberg site entirely.
The blocking of the New York Times website sets back an effort by the company to attract Chinese readers and advertising. This summer, it launched a new Chinese-language website, which had the potential of drawing especially on China's booming luxury industry for revenue. After the story about Wen's wealth had run on the English-language website Friday morning, both versions were blocked completely by the government.
The Times story was first posted on the English-language site and then translated and posted on the Chinese site after a short delay.
"We hope that full access is restored shortly, and we will ask the Chinese authorities to ensure that our readers in China can continue to enjoy New York Times journalism," Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said. "China is an increasingly open society, with increasingly sophisticated media, and the response to our [Chinese] site suggests that The Times can play an important role in the government's efforts to raise the quality of journalism available to the Chinese people."
Chinese news websites run by independent foreign media have been complicated ventures for Western companies in the past because they are often spared uncensored access to the Chinese market only with the government approval.
- - -
Max Fisher and Zhang Jie contributed to this report.