China is dealing with the “Panama Papers” scandal in a predictable fashion: by censoring online discussion of the revelations that top Chinese officials have been salting away huge fortunes through overseas shell companies.
“Hundreds of posts on networks such as Sina Weibo and Wechat on the topic have been deleted since Monday morning,” the BBC reports.
“State media appeared to black out the news. But many on microblogging network Sina Weibo and mobile chat network Wechat were discussing the topic on Monday morning, sharing Chinese translations of details of the story,” the BBC continues, noting that Chinese social media users had even created their own trending hashtag to discuss the scandal.
The hashtag abruptly stopped “trending” when some 481 discussions mysteriously vanished. The word “Panama” is now the second-most censored term on Weibo, according to the BBC.
The Irish Times notes that the most prominent mention of the Panama Papers in Chinese state-run media was an article in the Global Times, portraying them as a dirty trick by Western press, eager to slander such leaders as Russian President Vladimir Putin by disclosing the details of his $2 billion money-laundering operation.
“The Western media has taken control of the interpretation each time there has been such a document dump, and Washington has demonstrated particular influence in it,” thundered the Global Times editors. “Information that is negative to the US can always be minimised, while exposure of non-Western leaders, such as Putin, can get extra spin.”
The Global Times did not mention any Chinese leaders at all. The Washington Post caught the American division of China’s state broadcast network, CCTV, delivering a 2:30 segment on the Panama Papers without addressing any of the China-related news.
The Washington Post notes that the story broke on a national holiday in China, which gave social media users a little time to discuss the Panama Papers before Beijing’s censors caught on. Once they got into the game, the communist censors played hardball, issuing a directive that instructed all Chinese media to “find and delete reprinted reports on the Panama Papers.”
The censorship directive also threatens that “material from foreign media which attacks China” will be “dealt with severely.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a media briefing on Tuesday that he had no comment on the “groundless allegations” made against Chinese officials
Prominent Chinese names appearing in the Panama Papers include President Xi Jinping’s brother-in-law Deng Jiagui, powerful Politburo Standing Committee members Zhang Gaoli and Liu Yunshan, former premier Li Peng’s daughter Li Xiaolin, and Jasmine Li, the grand-daughter of a former high-ranking official named Jia Qinglin. Jasmine Li was given her own offshore corporation while she was still a teenager.
The Irish Times adds another Panama Papers tidbit with links to Chinese politics: “The documents also list the French architect Patrick Henri Devillers, who was linked to disgraced former Party star Bo Xilai through his business dealings with Mr Bo’s wife Bo Guagua, who was jailed for her part in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.”
Fortune suggests the Panama Papers fallout will be minimized in China because of the regime’s aggressive censorship and also because some of these offshore business dealings are actually old news for those allowed to read the news. For example, the vast business holdings of President Xi’s relatives were exposed as far back as 2012.
Another major factor in Chinese politics is the regime’s three-year crusade against corruption, which sets up Xi and his inner circle to portray the Panama Papers leak as an example of what they have been fighting, assuming those dedicated censors can keep the Chinese public from dwelling on the most politically inconvenient clients of the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca.