HONG KONG — If you’re a reporter covering China, you quickly learn that there are a few big red buttons that you aren’t supposed to push. Three of them start with “T” — Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen. Another one, slightly smaller, says “Falun Gong.” And then, hidden way down below, there’s a tiny, glowing button that you absolutely, certainly, must not press. That one says “Wealth of Chinese Officials’ Families.”
On Thursday, The New York Times pressed it again.
In an impressively detailed story, the Times reported that a firm run by the daughter of China’s beloved ex-premier, Wen Jiabao, had been paid $1.8 million to help JP Morgan drum up business in China. The article included a front-page photo of Wen’s daughter — who worked under the assumed name Lily Chang.
This comes just over a year after the paper disclosed that Wen Jiabao’s family had amassed a fortune worth at least $2.7 billion, thanks in part to their patriarch’s clout.
Since then, Beijing has been trying to quietly punish the Times. After the article ran, the company’s website was blocked, and applications for visas “mysteriously” stalled in the labyrinthine bowels of Chinese bureaucracy. Several of the company’s reporters have been stuck in limbo, waiting in Hong Kong for permits to come through.
You can be sure that things are about to get tougher in China for the Gray Lady. Already, on Friday, the new Chinese-language website of T Magazine, a non-political lifestyle publication, was blocked.
It comes in a period of unusual tension between Western news organizations and China. Last week, Reuters reporter Paul Mooney, a veteran China journalist, was told that he had been refused a visa — the first time this had happened during his 18-year career. Bloomberg has been unable to get visas, too, and its website has been blocked for over a year, since it published a report on the wealth of Xi Jinping’s family.
Following the latest Times report, on Friday the Chinese websites of the Wall Street Journal and Reuters were blocked. The South China Morning Post, an independent newspaper in Hong Kong, said on Friday that its site had also been inaccessible in China for the past two weeks.
Even before the Wen Jiabao report, Beijing's attitude seemed to be hardening. A leaked internal Communist Party document from April listed "Western media" as one of seven threats against which the Party must be vigilant.
“The ultimate goal of advocating Western views of media is to hawk the principle of abstract and absolute freedom of press, oppose the Party's leadership in the media, and gouge an opening through which to infiltrate our ideology,” it said.