By William Gallo – Chinese government censors moved quickly to block the New York Times website Friday after it published ablockbuster story detailing the massive wealth accumulated by the family of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.
The report threatened to shatter the public image of Wen, who is known as a compassionate, reformist leader with a modest background. The Times says a review of corporate and regulatory records indicate the prime minister’s relatives control assets of at least $2.7 billion.
Just hours after the article was posted, access to the paper’s English and Chinese-language websites was blocked throughout China. Censors also hurried to delete references to the prime minister and his family on China’s Twitter-like Weibo microblog, while the Times’ Chinese social media accounts were also deleted.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei condemned the article on Friday, telling reporters that it was meant to “smear China” and had “ulterior motives.”
NY Times reacts
Eileen Murphy, the paper’s spokeswoman, expressed disappointment and said she hopes full access is restored soon. But she said the Times refuses to compromise its journalistic standards. Following the June launch of its Chinese-language site, the paper made a similar commitment, vowing not to tailor its content based on “the demands of the Chinese government.”
In a move suggesting it anticipated China’s anger at the Friday article on Wen, the Times made the Chinese-language version available for download in PDF format, making it much easier to distribute.
It is not the first time that Beijing has blocked Chinese access to Western news outlets that posted stories exposing senior level government corruption. Bloomberg’s website has been blocked since June, when it ran a similar story describing the wealth amassed by the family of Vice President Xi Jinping, who is likely to become the country’s leader for the next decade.
The stories are a major embarrassment for the Communist Party, which has vowed to crack down on corruption following widespread public anger over several high profile scandals. They also come just before a sensitive, once-a-decade leadership transition, which begins in less than two weeks with the 18th Party Congress.
The transition has already been overshadowed by the downfall of formerPolitburo member Bo Xilai, whose wife was convicted of corruption and murder in August. State media said Friday that Bo, under investigation for corruption and bribery, has been stripped of his legal immunity, suggesting he will soon stand trial.
China’s extensive network of Internet censors, dubbed the Great Firewall of China, has been working extra hard in the lead-up to the November 8 Congress to delete any sensitive online content regarding Bo or other senior Communist Party members.
Many analysts, speaking on the condition of anonymity, say they expect the censorship to get worse as the date of the Congress approaches, noting that Beijing has in the past throttled Internet communication ahead of sensitive political events.
Some foreign journalists in China have already reported slower than usual Internet connections and increased trouble accessing VPNs, which allow users to circumvent Chinese censorship. The cause of the problem is difficult to identify, since Internet access in China is normally inconsistent and those wanting to access barred foreign websites must already play a cat-and-mouse game in order to do so.
Recent problems with the Internet have become so widespread that The Relevant Organs, a spoof Chinese government Twitter account, joked this week that the “next notch on the Internet Slower-Downer is off,” saying foreigners should “catch the hint and get out of town for the Party Congress.”