The New York Times reports today that Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s family has financial holdings worth nearly $3 billion. While it’s startling to see an accounting of those holdings appear on the front page of the Times, the holdings themselves aren’t all that surprising.
Some analysts have suggested that the revelation could finally spur new regulations requiring senior leaders to disclose their financial holdings. I am not so sanguine. For some time now, Wen Jiabao has been one of the Communist Party’s lone voices for reform. Just this past March, Wen took on the issue publicly:
We must press ahead with both economic reform and political structural reform…
Reform has reached a critical stage. Without successful political structural reform, it is impossible for us to fully institute economic structural reform and the gains we have made in this area may be lost.
The new problems that have cropped up in China’s society will not be fundamentally resolved, and such historical tragedies as the Cultural Revolution may happen again.
The sincerity of these calls for reform has been hotly debated. But in some regards, that debate misses the point. Even if it was all political theater, words can have consequences (see, for example: Helsinki Accords, Basket III).
Regardless of whether or not Wen knew about or was complicit in his family’s dealings, he will be silenced on the issue of political reform in China—when it comes to reform, he no longer has credibility within the Party or with the public at large (Beijing is censoring the story, of course, but news of this magnitude is bound to spread). And any Wen effort to continue speaking out will simply draw attention to corruption at the highest levels, which the Party simply will not have. The revelations of the New York Times investigation (as well as those of an earlier Bloomberg report on Xi Jinping’s family holdings) will likewise call into question the credibility of other senior leaders who might issue calls for reform, genuine or otherwise.
This may have thrown a wrench into proceedings ahead of the upcoming 18th Party Congress and leadership transition, but CCP conservatives may come to conclude that The New York Times has done them a favor.