Was the Wen Jiabao Story a Leak?

The NYT story on the Wen Family finances that came out in October, Billions in Hidden Riches for Family of Chinese Leader, is lauded by mainstream media figures as a journalistic coup and an example of gumshoe investigative journalism. But a small minority of media outlets, led by erstwhile Western media darlings Boxun and Mingjing, counter that the story is a clear leak. At best, they say, it’s impressive the way David Barboza followed up on the leaked documents that several other mainstream media organizations had taken a look at.

Evan Osnos, in a breakdown of the aftermath of the story, says this about rumors of a leak:

Give me a break.”

Osnos himself has been involved in some serious investigative journalism, including a series of stories for the Chicago Tribune that earned the team a Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Journalism. Barboza is one of the NYT’s best journalists and has been covering business – which this story was mostly about – for years. So we should expect this level of effort from them and the newsrooms that back them and not be surprised when they deliver. Does anyone sneer when Lebron dunks? No. Only when he doesn’t.

But just yesterday a correspondent with a major British news organization was standing next to me in the bathroom and he asked, Do you think the Wen Story was a leak? It’s a question two people who follow the media and China will ask each other in the loo, or at a bar, or over dinner.

In fact, the question is so prevalent that Osnos went out of his way to refute it in his column linked above, and Barboza wrote a blurb about “Obtaining Financial Records in China” in order to prove that, yes, it is possible to get your hands on this information without a Chinese insider handing you a dossier in the shadows of the Shanghai Bund.

Why so Skeptical?

There are a few reasons why people think this may have been a bit more than just top of the line journalism. One of them is Timing. Barboza was asked this question in the Q&A that followed the story, and his response was:

“Why now? Because it took that long to gather and evaluate the evidence, which involved thousands of pages of corporate and regulatory documents that we obtained through public record requests to various government entities in China … I got started last year, and within a month or so, I was discovering intriguing things about some of the businesses, but each new discovery required digging deeper and deeper. I expected to finish the project within a month, by working weekends, but it took more than a year!”

Barboza just happened to be investigating Wen Jiabao’s family following a story on China’s state-managed economy, called Endangered Dragon, and by the time all of the work was done, a year had passed and the only slot for the story turned out to be just before the 18th Congress, a once in a generation changeover of Chinese politicians and power. A changeover in which the outgoing prime minister happened to be the focus of the story.

Coincidence? I think not.

Now some of you out there might know the term “time-peg,” which refers to a story that must be published within a certain period of time in order to be relevant, or in this day and age, get the most traffic. So when Barboza started working on this story a year ago – and found out that these public records were a lot more interesting than people give them credit for – he may have let his editor know that he had a potential bombshell on his hands.

If so, any editor on earth would have said: keep working, lets aim for next Fall. So in my humble opinion, the timing of the story does not point to a leak, it merely demonstrates the business side of journalism.

Another issue is Access to Public Records. In the “Obtaining …” article linked above, Barboza outlines the basic method he used to get his hands on records, names, and numbers:

“Thirty years of economic reform — and government policies aimed at attracting foreign investment — have created a set of government agencies that keep records on private corporations and their major shareholders, including copies of resumes and government-issued identity cards.

It is this system that allows news organizations, including The New York Times, to request and review corporate records. Although ordinary citizens are not allowed access to the records, they can hire a lawyer or consulting firm to request documents for a fee of $100 to $200 per company.”

So the NYT took advantage of documents in the State Administration for Industry and Commerce (SAIC) and started digging. Remember, this isn’t the first time this has happened. Bloomberg came up with some interesting numbers in stories on Bo Xila’s and Xi Jinping’s fortunes. So if Bloomberg could come up with the numbers, why not the NYT? In the Q&A Barboza again defends his work and the integrity of the documents he unearthed after being peppered with questions:

“I have read the speculation that some “insider” gave me information, or that some enemies of the prime minister dropped off a huge box of documents at my office. That never happened. Not only were there no leaked documents, I never in the course of reporting met anyone who offered or hinted that they had documents related to the family holdings. This was a paper trail of publicly available documents that I followed with my own reporting, and if I might hazard a guess, it was a trail that no one else had followed before me.

In short, given the amount of effort this investigation required, I’d be stunned if there were a box of documents sitting somewhere that contained all of this work. If only it were so easy!”

If the NYT and Barboza can be accused of being tools in a factional struggle, why not the Bloomberg team that investigated Bo Xilai and Xi Jinping? The answer to this question may in fact be … another question.

The Media as a Tool

The other, stickier accusation involves the ancient question, Who Benefits?

And of course this is why everyone who is not a friend or colleague of David Barboza is calling (or whispering) that this was a leak. The hardline conservative faction within China’s government that sees no reason whatsoever for reform is the group that, according to most China Watchers out there, benefits the most from having Wen Jiabao’s reputation as a crusading do-gooder dragged through the mud. Wen’s fall from grace may have allowed Party Elders like Jiang Zemin and Li Peng boot Wang Yang and Liu Yuanchao in a “straw poll” reported in Reuters today

Not only does the reform faction’s most recent poster boy get pulled down, but a deeper and more insidious reaction also takes place: people moan and sigh in resignation. Yet another “leader” revealed to be nothing more than an opportunistic leech. It reminds me of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s “Iron Wall” concept currently being administered in Gaza: Beat Them Down Until They Submit. I personally believe that Chinese were already very aware that Grandpa Wen wasn’t who he wanted them to believe he was, and not only that, but reform-minded Chinese unequivocally do not look to Party Leaders for inspiration.

Regardless of the true impact of the story, the fact is that the timing of the article, the scope of the information – about the man’s MOTHER for goodness sake – and the fact that there is a faction out there currently slapping its knee in glee over the fall of Granpa Wen, leads people to believe that Barboza was helped by a dossier.

Which brings me back to the urinal. When the correspondent asked me about the Wen Story,  I said, “Hell yeah it was a leak! There is no way that any foreigner is getting his hands on that information without someone reporting it to a superior, and then that superior letting the relevant organs know. If the information got out, someone up high knew about it and let it slide.”

This is of course the conventional wisdom. The word on the street. That it is impossible for any foreigner to get their hands on this info without help. Barboza in the Q&A mentions Caixin as one of the best at using SAIC numbers for their stories. Breaking stories on land reform, factories doing no good, embezzlement and so on.

But Wen Jiabao? Barboza is asking us to believe that SAIC officials were passing out information on sensitive people to lawyers the NYT hired for a year, without anyone outside of  his small circle of editors putting the pieces together and realizing that this was a huge story on the prime minister. He just fooled all of these desk jockeys and then BAM! surprised everyone with a huge “takedown of Wen Jiabao” …

“Yeah, we took a look at that dossier,” the British correspondent told me. “But we were busy with the MP double-dipping scam in Britain and decided to leave it alone. You have to be ready to face the legal consequences for a story like this. So only the big boys could touch it.”

Just like that. Matter-of-factly telling me that a the dossier everyone is alluding to was shopped around like Spain’s unwanted property. Was the Brit just expressing jealousy? Trying to agree with my bombastic declaration that “of course it was a leak” because that’s what people do when they’re washing their hands in the bathroom?

I don’t know. But I am absolutely certain that the media is a tool regularly and consistently used by actors across the spectrum of society for their own gain. Did a faction hand Barboza a folder full of evidence? I don’t think so. Did they make sure that he received the information he “was looking for” during that one year investigative romp through SAIC’s underbelly? Seems likely.

But the more I read the story, the more I read Barboza’s other work, and the more I reflect on how humans in boring offices filled with documents behave, the more I am willing to believe that the NYT really did show the world how it’s done, by using the tools … 

I’ll leave it with Barboza again, defending himself and his efforts to doubters all over the world:

“My only real source for this lengthy article was a filing cabinet full of documents I requested from various Chinese government offices over a period of about a year. After having some luck with my initial requests for corporate registration documents from the State Administration for Industry and Commerce bureaus, I went on a reporting spree: requesting and paying fees for the records of dozens of investment partnerships tied to the relatives of Wen Jiabao.

I also began making lists of individuals and companies and trying to figure out who the people were and what their relationships were to one another; and what, I asked, was the purpose of all these partnerships — many of which had similar shareholders lists.

Although S.A.I.C. records are open to the public, few journalists in China have really made good use of them. They are invaluable sources of information about private companies. Two excellent Chinese publications, Caixin and the 21 Century Business Herald, have regularly used S.A.I.C. records. These two publications have done some groundbreaking business reporting here. But government restrictions on writing about the families of senior leaders limits the scope of investigative journalism in China, particularly when the families of high-ranking officials are involved.

So, Jack, there was no person “inside the Wall” helping me. I read the documents, called lawyers, accountants and financial experts for advice about how to make sense of the records. Occasionally I met someone who was able to identify one of the shareholders. But I told very few people that I was working on a story about the prime minister’s relatives. Even my closest friends did not know. I knew talking about my research could be risky, and might derail the project.”



Sascha Matuszak
Sascha Matuszak

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