While much of the world is currently occupied shifting through an incredibly massive data deluge that implicates many of the world’s rich and powerful of trying to dodge taxes (gasp!), China has remained calm, cool and collected; in fact, on the internet, you would hardly know that such a thing as the “Panama Papers” exists.
That treasure trove of 11.5 million formerly-secret files from Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca, uncovered by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and leaked online earlier this week, has tied business and political elites from all over the world to establishing offshore companies. While such a thing is not illegal, it could be used to hide cash and assets in order to reduce tax liabilities, leading some countries to look upon individuals mentioned in the documents with a certain degree of suspicion.
At least eight members of China’s political elite can be tied to those clients mentioned in the 2.6 terabytes of leaked data — including the brother-in-law of Xi Jinping — however, since news of the leak broke, state media have been largely silent on the massive scandal. Finally, earlier today at a regular Foreign Ministry question-and-answer session, reporters got to hear the Chinese government’s position on the largest data leak in human history and what it means for China.
It turns out, not much. Spokesman Hong Lei simply called the reports based on the leaks “groundless” and refused to comment further.
However, the “Panama Papers” have not been completely absent from Chinese media. State news reports mention a few big players, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, but fail to make mention of anyone from Chinese leadership (though some of these reports have already vanished as well). Meanwhile, party mouthpiece the Global Times published a scathing editorial arguing that the “disinformation” in the leaks was simply meant to smear the reputations of non-western leaders (Iceland excluded, we presume).
However, even international China watchers haven’t been very enthused about the leaks. In the past few years, foreign reporters have authored a number of exposés about the riches of the family members of Chinese leaders’, with both Bloomberg and The New York Times being blocked in China for reporting on such sensitive issues. The ICIJ itself even reported on the offshore assets of China’s wealthy only two years ago. So, the “revelations” contained in the leaks are already common knowledge to many, though that doesn’t mean that they are not incredibly sensitive.
“We heard such news before so I don’t find it surprising,” Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian told the Financial Times. “But it is very sensitive and the authorities don’t want people to talk about it. They are always trying to turn big troubles into small ones.”
The BBC reported that “Panama Papers” quickly became one of the most censored terms on Weibo yesterday. Internet regulators even went so far as to block out the entire country of Panama, just to be on the safe side:
Sina Weibo is censoring search results for "Panama" pic.twitter.com/KuXHqBGP5N
— William Farris (@wafarris) April 4, 2016
The names of those mentioned in the reports sourced from the leaks have also been sporadically censored throughout the Chinese internet. At the same time, directives have been sent to state media organs warning them not to publish any coverage on the leaks, threatening that if foreign media reports attacking China are reprinted “it will be dealt with severely.”
Along with Deng Jiagui, the brother-in-law of Xi, others who used the services of Mossack Fonseca include the family members of: former Premier Li Peng, ousted politician Bo Xilai, former Politburo Standing Committee member Jia Qinglin, current PSC members Liu Yunshan and Zhang Gaoli — as well as none other than Jackie Chan.