Stories about Panama papers went viral minutes after ICIJ released its reports on Monday. The leaked documents have so far implicated over 140 politicians and their relatives worldwide, among which the most notable Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Putin has been allegedly laundering through his close network of confidants at least $2billion through complicated offshore companies incorporated by a law firm, Mossack Fonseca, which is believed to be the ultimate source of these leaked documents.
Mossack Fonseca is said to have over 40 branches around the globe, and interestingly, 8 of them are in China. Then it comes at a bit surprise though, that given the supposedly great business Mossack Fonseca is getting from China and Hong Kong, there has been little light shed on how Chinese politicians may have been involved in the money laundering scandal. What we have learned from these reports about Chinese politicians is scarce, except for a brief mention of “brother in law” of President Xi, and the more high profile “Power Queen” Xiaolin Li, daughter of the former Premier Peng Li, whose family have long been suspected of corruption.
Does it mean Chinese politicians are more incorruptible than those of Russian? That’s one possible, but unlikely explanation. But one could perhaps reach a more plausible explanation when comparing the two photos below.
They are from the same story that BBC runs on the Panama papers, which implicate Xi’s brother in law, only difference, one in Chinese and the other in English. The photo of Xi in the Chinese version appears serious yet amicable, while the photo in the English version presents a much more eerie-looking and rigid stereotype image of a Chinese leader. One could argue that it’s the media’s tendency to play to English readers’ typical expectations of image for Chinese politicians. Or, it can be interpreted as BBC’s self-censorship in play, which makes it unwilling to provoke Chinese government unnecessarily.
It is perhaps the same type of self-censorship that excluded all major Chinese media from the coordinated investigation by ICIJ, a DC based non-profit for investigative journalism. The panama papers were obtained from an anonymous whistle blower over a year ago and more than 370 journalists from 100 media around the world had been since cooperating to mine these 1.1 million documents.
With few Chinese journalists on board, it’s not surprising that there’s little interest or perhaps even manpower to dig deep into the relevant documents, which could potentially implicate more politicians.
Self-censorship is very common in authoritarian regimes like former Soviet Union, and China is of no exception. Not only is there virtually no reportage by domestic media, but also people here are very wary of talking about the Panama papers online. After all, anything related to Panama papers are filtered and blocked by the Great Firewall of China. When people have to mention Xi, they normally use other codes without mentioning his name. It is such hesitation and fear that have kept the stories off the radar of most average Chinese citizens. But “rumors” are nevertheless spreading, and before long, the Government will have to respond one way or another. Unlike Kremlin, which has categorically denied these allegations, Chinese government has yet to issue any statement and has declined comments requested by ICIJ journalists.
What we now know may be just the tip of an iceberg, considering the leaked documents from the eight China based offices of Mossack Fonseca. As ICIJ dig deeper and more other media gain access to the original Panama papers, we can expect to see more stories on China rolling out.
And…yes, the story has been written in English instead of Chinese out of self-censorship. Yes, Chinese government could care less about an unknown broken English writer than a Chinese article meant for average Chinese readers.
By STONE May 2, 2016 on USCNPM