Reporting from China

Imagine you are a journalist investigating the hidden riches of Wen Jiabao. You have evidence of massive holdings amounting to at least $2.7 billion. You have your draft of the article. Will you call the Prime Minister’s family to at least hear their side of the story? Will you give them a chance to deny or confirm the accuracy of your findings?

That’s exactly what David Barboza from the New York Times did. He phoned the family members of the Prime Minister from Tokyo to discuss with them his findings and documents. To him, the motivation for the act was part journalistic integrity, part fear that he had gotten something wrong during his investigations. If he had reported something factually inaccurate, the reputation of New York Times would have been implicated with him in the subsequent fallout. What later became a catapult to winning the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting could have turned out very different indeed - and he was determined to not let that happen.

Speaking to an enraptured audience at CSCC’s annual lecture, Barboza recounted his 1.5 year journey in investigating and reporting on this issue, as well as the heavy pressure from Chinese officials he faced during and after this period.

Barboza had started off his investigation based off of rumors. The rumor that China’s high-ranking government officials hold secret shares in corporations is widely discussed in China. He knew that the Wen family was rumored to have large holdings in private equity, insurance and diamonds. People talked openly about it as if it was a fact, but no one had dared to report on it. As he plowed in, he was greatly surprised to find that an enormous amount of information was available in public records, ranging from online Citizen ID databases to cemetery records to S.A.I.C (State Administration for Industry and Commerce) records of companies and their major shareholders at the time of incorporation. He slowly linked the pieces together – who owned what in which companies (through their accompanying shell companies) and how are they were related to each other. The paper trail was always out there for anyone who wanted to doggedly follow it, unlike what online false allegations of internal sources that intentionally leaked information to Barboza for political gain may imply.

Despite Chinese official’s exhortations and pleas to not publish the article, and New York Time’s planned release of the Chinese version of its website (largely for Chinese readers’ consumption) during the period, New York Times decided to publish the article. As expected, the article was off the Chinese Internet in a matter of 2-3 hours and the New York Time’s site was banned in China in its aftermath. David Barboza recounted how he was indeed moved by the pleas of some of the directly impacted subjects of his investigation, who, in their phone calls with him, asked him to soften the edges of his report. Some names of the youngest relatives, mere children, implicated in holding assets were removed, although David’s reporting did not find illegality or corruption and merely reported who held what assets.

Throughout the period from the beginning of the investigation, the people Barboza was most worried about were his Chinese translators. Chinese nationals are not allowed to write for foreign publications but often serve as translators and researchers. When government officials started suspecting what was being investigated, Barboza’s translators were subject to a lot of pressure tactics during weekly interrogations about what Barboza was working on. Even though Barboza can say with great confidence that all the documents and evidence used in his investigative journalism piece were acquired through legal means, and hence would not legally implicate his Chinese translators, he was careful not to let them know something unless they needed to, if that knowing that piece of information could put them in a difficult position. In addition, Barboza made it clear that they could stop working on the case at any time if they felt that this endangered themselves. He ended off remarking that his brave Chinese translators, who never gave up through this trying process, were the true unsung heroes.

Barboza decided to stay on in China afterwards and found that his translators were interrogated on what he was then currently investigating, where he had been, who he had spoken to etc. He also recalled being followed, having many problems with his internet access as well as an incident where a group of policemen showed up at his house with a search warrant, on a weekday at midnight. He surmises that the Chinese government wanted to make it so uncomfortable for him to stay that he would choose to fly back to America once his visa expired. Now that he is back in the States, he has been visiting various communication and journalism schools to share this story with an educational purpose, educating the audience about what investigative journalism is like and the ethical issues involved that one must grapple with.

You can read Barboza’s article, titled “Billions in Hidden Riches for Family of Chinese Leader” here:


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