Wen Jiabao: ruler at the heart of a $2.7bn scandal

Wen Jiabao's image as 'humble premier of the people' has been dealt a blow by allegations of his family's fortune.

In 2010, a WikiLeaks cable quoting US sources in China revealed that the country's premier, Wen Jiabao, was "disgusted" by his family's business activities, but was "either unable or unwilling to curtail them". If Wen was disgusted then, he must be absolutely livid now following The New York Times's revelations about his family's finances, says the South China Morning Post. The close relatives are said to have accumulated more than $2.7bn in assets an "explosive expos", reports the Post.

The story deals another blow to China's scandal-ridden ruling class as they prepare for a change of government (see below), says The Guardian. They also badly dent "Grandpa Wen's" carefully constructed image as the humble "Premier of the People" always on hand to console and comfort "at moments of national trauma".

It's no secret in elite circles that Wen's wife Zhang Beili, nicknamed the Diamond Queen', is the pivotal player in China's jewellery and gem trade; nor that his only son, Wen Yungsong, runs the $2.5bn private equity fund, New Horizon Capital. But, hitherto, Wen's family has never been "implicated in any of the scandals of conspicuous wealth and jet-set lifestyles that regularly fuel the resentment of the less fortunate majority".

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The analysis of the Wen family wealth reveals extensive interests in virtually every sector, says The New York Times. Perhaps the most eye-catching is $120m worth of shares in the giant insurer Ping An, improbably held by his 90-year-old mother (a point the family disputes). This, like most of the family's other assets, is concealed in "an intricate web of holdings".

Wen isn't personally linked with any of these investments, but there's evidence that relatives may have profited from his policy decisions. He was instrumental, for instance, in relaxing the rules that allowed Ping An to float. Soon after he ordered tougher regulations to tackle the Sars virus outbreak, his younger brother won $30m in government contracts to handle water and medical waste disposal.

It's all a far cry from Wen's impoverished childhood in Tianjin city, where he was raised by his mother, a teacher, amid the turmoil of the Sino-Japanese war. A trained geologist, he joined the Communist Party in 1965, and combined a career in China's hinterland regions with his climb up the party ladder. Discovered' in the late 1980s by the then general secretary, Hu Yaobang, he joined the Politburo, rising to become prime minister in 2003.

Wen has a reputation as a hard-working intellectual: he regularly quotes ancient Chinese poets and scholars, "expounding on the virtues of perseverance and commitment to duty", notes The Guardian. Mulling over his record in an emotional news conference last March, he observed that "ultimately, history will have the final say". Unfortunately for Wen, it may have just been re-written.

The Communist billionaires' club

Despite strenuous efforts by the Chinese government to impose a news black-out on the revelations of Grandpa Wen's "hidden riches", the story has been widely circulated, says Kathrin Hille in the Financial Times. Indeed, Sina Weibo, China's Twitter equivalent, has been "ablaze with allegations" that The New York Times has been "used by Wen's enemies" to attack him and his cabal.

The Times's revelations follow a similar Bloomberg investigation this summer, which suggested that the extended family of Xi Jinping set to become China's next president had amassed hundreds of millions of dollars in assets.

What is incontrovertible, says The Daily Telegraph, is the staggering scale of wealth extraction by China's elite. A report by Global Financial Integrity suggests that as much as $3.79trn has been smuggled out of the country since 2000 much of it by top-ranking officials and their families.

Indeed, as the Hurun Report on China's rich shows, the National People's Congress "is now a billionaires' club", with the wealthiest 70 members enjoying a combined net worth of $85bn, says Isabel Hilton in The Guardian. By way of comparison, the estimated net worth of the 660 top officials in the supposedly venal US "adds up to a mere $7.5bn".

Lawyers acting for the Wen family have taken the unusual step of threatening to sue The New York Times. That's a finely balanced decision, says Wang Xiangwei in the South China Morning Post. The big worry for Wen is that his enemies "could use the report as an excuse to go after [his] family members following his full retirement early next year". But yet more publicity could have equally "detrimental" consequences.

Given the "growing anger" of the Chinese people at their rulers' "self-enrichment", the priority must surely be a clean sweep-out, says the Financial Times. Corruption is eating away at the government's legitimacy. "If the Communist party's aim is to stick around much longer, it must take urgent steps to eradicate the rot."