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Panama Papers Hit Great Firewall of China


A man looks at a newsstand with a copy of the day's Global Times displayed on a basket in Beijing, China, Tuesday, April 5, 2016.

A man looks at a newsstand with a copy of the day's Global Times displayed on a basket in Beijing, China, Tuesday, April 5, 2016.

Social media discussions were heavily censored; Panama in English and the Chinese words for Panama and Panama documents were among the top 10 blocked phrases on Tuesday.

China has moved quickly to silence any discussion about the Panama Papers and information about the use of tax havens by the families of at least eight current and former top leaders, including the brother-in-law of President Xi Jinping.

Massive wealth accumulated by the families of China’s ruling party members has long been a big concern in China, but also a topic where discussion has long been tightly controlled.

Panama Papers dam

On Tuesday, searches on Chinese language sites brought up links to stories online about the massive document dump, but aside from stories about sport stars, most were blocked.

On social media, discussions were heavily censored, and according the site Freeweibo.com, Panama in English and the Chinese words for Panama and Panama documents were among the top 10 blocked phrases on Tuesday.

One posting that has since been removed remarked: “tax havens are quite common and reasonable for business people, but where is all of this tax free money that officials have coming from?”

The setting sun lights up the Panama City skyline, Monday, April 4, 2016.

The setting sun lights up the Panama City skyline, Monday, April 4, 2016.

The quiet and clamp down left some puzzled. For others, it only fueled more speculation.

One user named Space Out said: "I don't understand why the phrase Panama Papers has been labeled a sensitive term. So far, our country hasn't been negatively impacted... Is it because [authorities] have foreseen they will have something to do with us?”

Another said "It turns out that the Communist Party has no desire to enlighten the public about this. I guess many top leaders are involved."

Some blotted out the full name of Panama in Chinese or used the English Romanization version of the country's name with spaces to try and post comments on social media, but their postings were still blocked.

The censorship was so extensive that some joked that Panama has now disappeared.

"Obviously ba na ma (Panama) is a sensitive phrase." one user wrote.

Others, like user 1874 BC, were caught up in the censorship dragnet for posting an image of an article about the documents. The comment above the image read: "Little is said at home about the biggest story in the world, whose coverage is blocked on Weibo."

Another said: "The Panama Papers story, which I just finished reading, was deleted in the blink of an eye. So fast. Nothing can be found on Baidu."

FILE - Chinese President Xi Jinping is displayed on a large screen during the opening session of the annual National People's Congress in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, March 5, 2016.

FILE - Chinese President Xi Jinping is displayed on a large screen during the opening session of the annual National People's Congress in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, March 5, 2016.

Western Conspiracy

While most Chinese publications were silent, a popular party-backed newspaper, the Global Times ran an editorial in English and Chinese that argued that the massive document dump was putting overwhelming criticism on non-Western leaders.

The article did not mention any of the divulged documents related to President Xi's family, the daughter of former Premier Li Peng, or the granddaughter of Jia Qingling, but it did note that Western media were giving "extra spin" to documents linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In the Internet era, disinformation poses no major risks to Western influential elites or the West. In the long-run, it will become a new means for the ideology-allied Western nations to strike a blow to non-Western political elites and key organizations," the editorial said.

More details expected

So far, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has released documents related to four top Chinese communist party officials on their website.

According documents obtained by the ICIJ, Xi Jinping's brother in law Deng Jiajun, became the sole director and shareholder of two offshore companies in 2009. The two "shelf companies" - a corporation that has no activity - were in the inventory of Mossack Fonseca, the law firm at the center of the document dump. The ICIJ said that by the time Xi Jinping became president in 2013, the companies were dormant.

Some of the revelations were not particularly new. The document dump included details on Patrick Henri Devillers, a former business partner of the wife of ousted Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai.

A Mossack Fonseca law firm logo is pictured in Panama City, April 3, 2016

A Mossack Fonseca law firm logo is pictured in Panama City, April 3, 2016

Xi's brother-in-law Deng and Li Xiaolin, the daughter of former Premier Li Peng have been mentioned in previous documents that the ICIJ released about offshore holdings.

While some have argued that the information in the files could be helpful for China's anti-corruption investigators, it is unlikely there will be much follow up here from authorities.

Late Tuesday, in its first response to questions about the documents, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei was brief: "About these groundless accusations, I have no comment."

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