The relatives of China’s prime minister have invested in assets worth at least $2.7 billion, according to a New York Times investigation ahead of a pivotal power handover for the Communist Party.
The newspaper said that many relatives of Wen Jiabao, who will be replaced in a once-in-a-decade leadership transition next month, have become “extraordinarily wealthy” during his time in office.
The investments span banks, jewellers, tourist resorts, telecommunications companies and infrastructure projects, with the owners of the assets often concealed by using offshore vehicles or complicated holding structures.
The report comes as an embarrassment for Wen, whose public image is of a man of humble origins and a reformer fighting abuses and corruption within the party – a source of widespread anger among ordinary Chinese.
The New York Times website was quickly blocked by censors in China on Friday morning.
The investigation, based on corporate and regulatory records from 1992 to 2012, compiled alleged dealings by Wen’s son, daughter, younger brother and brother-in-law, as well as his mother.
His mother owned a stake valued at $120 million in 2007 in the Ping An insurance giant, which benefited from reforms during Wen’s tenure, according to the newspaper.
It gave no figure for the family’s net worth now, but calculated the value of the assets they had controlled over the period examined. No holdings were found in Wen’s name.
Speculation of a hidden fortune has been circulating for years, fuelled by US embassy documents from 2007 made public by WikiLeaks that alleged influence-peddling by members of Wen’s family.
The business of his wife, Zhang Beili, a well-known jewellery and gemstone expert, had become “an off-the-charts success only as her husband moved into the country’s top leadership ranks,” The Times said.
The investigation comes at a delicate and highly sensitive time ahead of China’s power transition starting November 8, when successors to Wen and President Hu Jintao will be revealed.
The lead-up has already been tarnished by the case of disgraced former leader Bo Xilai, who is expected to go on trial after being stripped of his parliamentary seat and legal immunity, according to state media reports Friday.
The former party boss from the huge southwestern city of Chongqing, once tipped for a top party role, fell from grace after being linked to the murder of a British businessperson.
His wife has been convicted of the murder and has been given a suspended death sentence after the city’s police chief turned against the couple and detailed their alleged crimes in the US consulate.
In June, an investigation by financial news agency Bloomberg alleged the relatives of the man tipped to be the next Chinese president, Xi Jinping, had also built up a giant portfolio of investments in property and stocks.
Public anger about corruption and cronyism is on the rise in China, fanned by social media that helps spread stories of official wrong-doing despite the best efforts of the country’s powerful censors.
China’s top disciplinary official said earlier this month that the party had placed investigation of graft allegations as “the main priority of our work.”
“Corrupt individuals, no matter who they are, will be followed relentlessly and will never escape punishment,” He Guoqiang, a member of the nine-man Communist Party committee that runs China, was quoted as saying on October 9.
The state-run magazine China Newsweek reported this month that as many as 18,000 corrupt government officials have fled the country with 800 billion yuan ($128 billion) since the mid-1990s.
The number of fleeing officials has risen steadily over the past decade from about 600 in 2003 to over 1,600 last year, with a spike in 2007 to 4,500, the magazine said, citing the national public prosecutor’s office.