Tea Leaf Nation

'I Came to This World Naked'

China's erstwhile No. 2 tries to fend off corruption implications -- and the public isn't buying it.

It hasn't been easy for former Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. Despite the immense prestige afforded to the person who was China's second most powerful official for 10 years, Wen has found himself and his family put under a microscope in the waning days of his public life.

His family was twice the target of New York Times investigative reports: An October 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning article alleged that his family had accumulated at least $2.7 billion dollars. (In Oct. 2012, lawyers representing Wen's family reportedly called the story "untrue" and threatened legal action.) A November 2013 follow-up in the same publication then alleged financial dealings between Wen's daughter Wen Ruchun and J.P. Morgan, the U.S. investment bank. (J.P. Morgan has declined to comment to the New York Times on the allegations, but in the wake of investigations was recently reported to have removed itself from a major potential investment in a Chinese chemical company.) And in mid-January, an article in British newspaper The Guardian reported that Wen, in addition to other high Chinese officials, had family members who stored wealth in offshore financial entities. None of the articles implicated Wen himself, but the descriptions of nepotism and corruption have painted Wen and his family in a particularly unflattering light.

Then, Wen struck back -- sort of. On Jan. 18, a columnist from Ming Pao, a major Chinese language newspaper in Hong Kong, published a hand-written letter from Wen to his friend Wu Kangmin, a columnist at the publication. In practiced Chinese calligraphy, Wen claims that he leads the "life of an old retiree" filled with "exercising, reading, and meeting friends." But the note also serves, intentionally or not, as Wen's first public response to the New York Times reports, about which he had previously remained silent. In it, Wen asserts that "I have never and would never abuse my power for personal gain." At the missive's end, Wen writes that he longs to "put a good end to the last leg of my life's journey" and concludes with a flourish: "I came to this world naked, and will leave clean."   

Perhaps not coincidentally, two days later, People's Daily online, a Communist Party outlet, published a feature on Wen's family, and depicted Wen as coming from a long line of earnest and humble educators -- his father was a teacher. Given the political connections of the People's Daily, the feature was likely calculated to complement the publication of Wen's letter.

Indeed, the release of Wen's handwritten response may be deliberately timed to quash rumors and vouch for his good name at a time when president Xi Jinping has stepped up his anti-corruption crackdown, vowing to snare both minor and major officials in its dragnet. Wen has not faced any allegations in domestic media following the New York Times exposés, but he might still be concerned about his fate given that Zhou Yongkang, the former security czar, is reportedly under secret investigation for corruption. 

A schism on the Chinese Internet soon emerged: While other mainstream outlets quickly ran the syndicated People's Daily feature, users of Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, largely lambasted Wen's letter. Many regard it as a clumsy denial: One user wrote, as if to Wen, "Your son is the president of a state-owned company, your mother is rich, and your wife" -- a geologist who has been described as China's "diamond queen" -- sells diamond jewelry. "Shall we think these are all rumors?" 

Online critics have referred to Wen as "China's best actor" for years, accusing him of speaking too much while doing too little. Similar criticisms popped up again this time: One user wrote that "actor" Wen was best when he was  "reciting poetry" or "shedding tears," not making and implementing policy. Another user wrote, "Perhaps Wen hasn't abused his power for personal gain, but he hasn't used his power to limit personal gain either."

To Maoist conservatives, known in China as "leftists," Wen is the avatar of all they stand against, a convenient piñata for their grievances about China today: income disparity, corruption, and most importantly, the ills stemming from a supposed invasion of foreign capital and ideas. Leftist online communities like Cultural Revolution Net or RedChinaCn.net are full of angry and shrill tirades against Wen, which call him things like the particularly nasty hanjian, which means a traitor against the Chinese nation. Wen's attempt at self-defense is likely to change none of this.

A handful of netizens also speculated about any hidden meaning in the letter. One user speculated that it was "a preemptive action." Another replied that Wen's defense "only reveals the truth," and asked, "Does he know something will happen?" Some netizens gave Wen partial credit for talking the talk of a political reformer, which is extremely rare among any Communist Party cadre, especially one at the top echelon of power. He was the Party's go-to man for a visit to disaster zones: Most memorably, he flew to the worst-struck areas of Sichuan province after a Richter scale 8.0 earthquake in May 2012, and worked out of a tent to rally rescuers despite intense aftershocks. One netizen wrote: "At least he dared to call for political reform," making him more likely "to be brought down by political opponents."

Such a fate is still unlikely -- but it does indeed seem more so now than a year ago. Even if Wen remains safe, he faces a more anxious retirement than a man of his standing might normally be expected to endure. 

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