October 29, 2012

Desperately seeking Grandpa Wen


“$2.7 billion dollars means a stack about, oh, this high….”

The Chinese edition of the New York Times, inaugurated earlier this year (see this MobyLives post), faced its first public challenge last Friday, when both the English and Chinese editions of the Gray Lady ran a long article about the $2.7 billion Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s family and relatives have amassed for themselves over the course of the prime minister’s tenure in power. The English article went up on Thursday at around 4:30 PM, US time (4:30 AM, Friday, on Chinese time), and the translation of it was posted on the Chinese site about three hours later, at which point, it appears from the NYT’s own reporting on the matter, access to both the English and Chinese sites had been blocked by the Chinese authorities.

There’s some indication that they knew this was coming—Rachel Yu over at Tea Leaf Nation writes that:

Just three days before the article’s publications, overseas Chinese media reported that a portfolio of documents on Wen had been delivered to various foreign media outlets. As Wen presents himself as a champion of China’s liberals and reformers, many assumed that the dirt on Wen was given to foreign media by Wen’s enemies or supporters of former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, the fallen symbol of the conservative camp who yearned for a return to Communist or Maoist orthodoxy.

(Yu also samples the various Weibo commentary on the scandal, my favorite being this exchange:

A: NYTimes, a new tycoon in China. 2.7 billion U.S. dollars.

B: Is it my mother?)

Whether or not Bo Xilai was involved hasn’t been confirmed, but regardless, the article went up, and the censors came down like the proverbial ton of bricks. Access to both sites were blocked, tweets and posts were yanked, and search terms like “New York Times”, “NYT,” “2.7 billion,” “Wen Jiabao,”  and the nicknames “Grandpa Wen” and “Best Actor” were put out of commission on Weibo sites and elsewhere. Interestingly, the Times seems to have put something of a back-up in place: the article was also made available as a pdf for download, so it could be shared privately, after the expected blocking came into effect.

In a follow-up piece in the Times’s Public Editor’s Journal, Margaret Sullivan interviewed publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who said that publication of the article was preceded by “conversations with the Chinese government to discuss it.” But that neither the Chinese authorities nor the Chinese companies who advertise on the site were informed about when the story was going up. Sullivan’s interview with Sulzberger and Joseph Kahn, the foreign editor of the paper, allays one question I had about the whole matter, which is whether the Chinese article contained all the information that the English article did, something which unfortunately I’m not able to judge for myself. It seems likely, though, that the Times knew from the start that the piece would be controversial and just went for it.

Also buried in the coverage is the tantalizing information that Rupert Murdoch, while generally doing just fine in China with the Chinese-language editions of the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, could not crack the Chinese TV market. The Guardian reports:

Rupert Murdoch also gave up his dream of piping Chinese TV to every home in the country. Over a period of almost 20 years, he travelled regularly to China and assiduously courted its leaders, in the hope of creating a truly global satellite network. But last August, News Corporation announced it was selling its controlling stakes in three of its Chinese television channels to a domestic private equity fund based in Beijing and Shanghai.

Somehow, I’m not sympathetic.


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.