Panama Papers: The Country Where It’s Not News

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman refused to comment on the “groundless accusations" contained in the documents.

Andy Wong / AP

The Panama Papers are making headlines from Reykjavik to Sydney, but one place where there’s been conspicuous silence over the leak is China.

Documents from Mossack Fonseca, the Panamanian law firm that specializes in creating shell companies, reveal offshore companies linked to Deng Jiagui, who is married to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s older sister, as well as Li Xiaolin, the daughter of Li Peng, the former premier. Details of the documents—though not the papers themselves—were published Sunday in Süddeutsche Zeitung, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and other news outlets worldwide. It’s worth emphasizing here that though the allegations in the Panama Papers are shocking, some of the actions described are perfectly legal. Still, that’s not stopping officials around the world from addressing the issue of perception. One way to do that is ordering a media blackout: At least one Chinese provincial office has issued a censorship directive to editors on the story.

“Find and delete reprinted reports on the Panama Papers. Do not follow up on related content, no exceptions,” said the directive from the unnamed province, which was obtained by the China Digital Times, a China-focused website that is based in Berkeley, California. “If material from foreign media attacking China is found on any website, it will be dealt with severely. This directive was delivered orally to on-duty editors. Please act immediately.”

A similar directive was issued to editors on stories related to the leak that allege close associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Bank Rossiya, a Russian bank that has been blacklisted by the U.S. and the EU, laundered hundreds of millions of dollars. That story, the directive said, should be moved from the homepage to the “backend of the site.”

The Guardian adds that the directives appear to have had the desired effect. Stories related to the Panama Papers in the Shanghai Daily as well as CCTV, the state-run broadcaster, were purged. Neither of those stories mentioned the China-related allegations.

The allegations contained in the papers themselves aren’t new. In 2012, Bloomberg reported on Xi, who at the time was tipped to become the new Chinese leader. The news report said that as Xi climbed the ranks of the Communist Party, his extended family expanded their business interests and grew increasingly wealthy, but none of their assets were traced to Xi or his wife.

“Most of the extended Xi family’s assets traced by Bloomberg were owned by Xi’s older sister, Qi Qiaoqiao, 63; her husband Deng Jiagui, 61; and Qi’s daughter Zhang Yannan, 33,” the news agency added. Qi and Deng are the figures also named in ICIJ’s Mossack Fonseca documents.

Similar stories about the wealth of Chinese officials were published that year by The New York Times and in 2014 by the ICIJ, in its previous reporting on leaked documents. Although those stories have made it widely known that influential Chinese have offshore assets, along with great wealth, there’s no reporting on it in China’s state-run media—though it does occasionally creep into the country’s vibrant social media before being censored. Some of that censorship was on display after Sunday’s stories. “Panama” was a highly censored term on social media, according to Free Weibo, a website that tracks censorship.

The one mention of the Panama Papers, but not the allegations against the Chinese figures, came in an editorial in The Global Times, a tabloid published by the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece. The editorial, titled “Powerful force is behind Panama Papers,” suggested that only non-Western figures were being targeted.

“It is risky to claim the leaked information is fabricated,” the paper acknowledged. “It can be predicted that such disclosure will not survive if it embarrasses the West. But the West will be happy to see such leaks happen if their opponents are attacked.”

When asked Tuesday about the accusations detailed in the Panama Papers, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman would only say: “For these groundless accusations, I have no comment.” But even those remarks were omitted from the Foreign Ministry’s official transcript of the event.