While the rest of the world watches the Panama Papers scandal unfold, Chinese state media has simply blacked out news related to the leaked documents from the Panamanian law firm. Additionally, China has cracked down on social media, deleting posts that mention the Panama Papers or allegations of its leaders’ ties to offshore shell companies.
The documents leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists on Sunday reveal that three of the seven people serving on the Chinese Communist Party’s top committee have relatives who owned offshore companies designed as tax havens. Eight elite party officials have companies set up to protect their wealth offshore in the names of family members.
President Xi Jinping is implicated by ties to his brother-in-law, Deng Jiagui, who controlled his wealth through offshore companies along with the president’s sister Qi Qiaoqiao. This, however, has been known since a Bloomberg News report in 2012. What a review of the documents show is that three additional companies had been acquired by Deng while Xi was already vice-president of China.
The documents from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca are deeply sensitive in China where Xi’s Communist Party has branded itself as a fighter of internal corruption and world leader in economic equality. These papers reveal a major disparity in wealth and how it is covered up.
Jasmine Li, the granddaughter of Lia Qinglin, became the sole shareholder of two companies in the British Virgin Islands while only a teenager. At the time her grandfather was the fourth-ranked official in China.
The BBC found that many people were discussing the Panama Papers and sharing translations of the stories on Monday morning on the microblogging site Sina Weibo and the mobile chat network WeChat. There was even a hashtag trending on the subject.
By the end of the day those posts were missing from both Weibo and WeChat. The site FreeWeibo, which tracks censored content on the site stated that “Panama” is now the second-most censored word used on the Weibo network.
Other censored words are also related to the scandal: tax evasion, file, leaked, Putin and company.
Censors have been working hard to ensure that news of the leaks does not penetrate China’s “Great Firewall” of Internet controls. Searches using the Chinese characters for “Panama” early on Tuesday on Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter, turned up information on regulations for importing fruit, including some from Panama. But by the afternoon in Beijing, queries resulted in the following terse message: “Sorry, searches for ‘Panama’ came up with no relevant results.”
The Berkeley-based China Digital Times was able to find one protected source of a directive to the media, ““Find and delete reprinted reports on the Panama Papers. Do not follow up on related content, no exceptions,” the report from an unnamed source said. “If material from foreign media attacking China is found on any website, it will be dealt with severely. This directive was delivered orally to on-duty editors. Please act immediately.”
A Baidu search does return some news results related to the leak. However, three of the top five articles can no longer be accessed, one is just a single-sentence announcement of the French government’s promise to investigate the reports, and the other, while describing the investigation in some detail, does not mention any of the Chinese figures named.
On Tuesday, the Global Times, a state-run newspaper did publish a story mentioning the Panama Papers, which accuses the Western media of using the story as spin to attack Russian President Vladimir Putin. The article made no mention of accusations against Chinese officials and calls allegations against the Prime Minister of Iceland “small potatoes” compared to the attack the West was launching against Putin.
Additionally, the article “Powerful force is behind Panama Papers” compares the leak to whistleblower Edward Snowden and Wikileaks, condemning the use of documents in this case where there is no named source. “Among them, Snowden’s leaks sounded the most credible,” the article said, “since they were exposed by an admitted whistleblower. While the Wikileaks website has at least a figurehead, nobody is clearly behind these latest leaks.”
The online disinformation makes public opinion precise strikes possible for the West, which always “digs out” materials from the so-called confidential information. Despite different interests, Western countries are close allies in ideology. This is perhaps the basis for the concept of the “West.” Public opinion of different Western countries is quite uniform.
It is risky to claim the leaked information is fabricated. It can be predicted that such disclosure will not survive if it embarrasses the West. But the West will be happy to see such leaks happen if their opponents are attacked.