Offshore Leaks Trigger Wave of Fear

by Tienchi Martin-Liao    /  February 12, 2014  / No comments

Did China imprison activists and dissident writers to divert attention from corruption scandal?

Xu Zhiyong and Hu Jia Supporters

According to Tienchi Martin-Liao, the conviction of Xu Zhiyong, which the activists pictured here are protesting, serves as a strategic distraction from a recent corruption scandal. Photo: VOA Chinese via Creative Commons.

In January of this year, after two years of research, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICJI) published a report listing over 21,000 people in China and Hong Kong who are utilizing offshore “havens” to “hold assets, list companies in the world’s stock exchanges, buy and sell real estate and conduct their business away from Beijing’s red tape and capital controls.” This list contains the names of some of China’s prominent leaders: Wen Jaibao, the former premier, Zhou Yongkang, former member of the Standing Committee (who is now detained and under investigation), members of Xi Jinping’s family, and many members of the Central Committee. Not to mention many military leaders and political figures.

  1. Blind Chess, a column by Tienchi Martin-Liao
  2. During the Cultural Revolution, people were sentenced to death or outright murdered because of one wrong sentence. In China today writers do not lose their lives over their poems or articles; however, they are jailed for years. My friend Liu Xiaobo for example will stay in prison till 2020; even winning the Nobel Peace Prize could not help him. In prison those lucky enough not to be sentenced to hard labor play “blind chess” to kill time AND TO TRAIN THE BRAIN NOT TO RUST. Freedom of expression is still a luxury in China. The firewall is everywhere, yet words can fly above it and so can our thoughts. My column, like the blind chess played by prisoners, is an exercise to keep our brains from rusting and the situation in China from indifference.
  3. Tienchi Martin-Liao
  4. Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.

In her article “How We Did Offshore Leaks China” journalist Marina Walker Guevara details how a small group of ICIJ journalists worked with 50 other organizations for years to decipher 2.5 million leaks of offshore information.

Since 2000, an astronomical amount of money—one to four trillion dollars—has left China through these offshore channels. The disclosure of this information and the implication of those who were involved has had an international impact and shows how deep the fear of China’s ruling class goes. This enormous scandal was even reported by the Chinese media, but only for a few hours, until government censors reacted. Thereafter, all foreign media coverage was blocked and all related stories deleted. With such a quick reaction time, people in China only learned of this sensational news if they happened to be online at the right moment.

The State Council Information Office’s protocol for censoring the ICJI’s report was published by China Digital Times and is as follows:

1. Immediately find and remove the foreign media report “China’s Secret Offshore Tax Havens” and related content. Interactive platforms must strictly check [users]. Related images and accusatory comments about leaders and the system [of government] must be deleted without exception. Block the [user] IDs of those who have an evil influence and coordinate on-the-ground investigations with the relevant departments.

2. All websites must stop stirring up the article “Chinese Internet ‘Paralysis’; Affected IPs Redirect to American Company.” (January 21, 2014)

Apparently, in what amounted to a catastrophe for the Chinese business world, the internet in China was down for eight hours due to the severity with which the cyber-security forces carried out the protocol.

Nevertheless, the Chinese people still picture Xi Jinping, the “beloved” leader of the red empire, as a humble man. One day he even took a taxi to the office like a normal employee; another day he stood in line at a fast food restaurant to buy a steamed bun. These fairy tales have circulated the internet like wildfire and the propaganda machine works hard to make it so; people are surprised and celebrate the great, down-to-earth leader who’s so close to his people.

Didn’t President Xi publicly swear his determination to fight corruption—to “beat the tiger and kill the flies”? Yet, the day after ICIJ released their report, Xi’s administration sentenced Xu Zhiyong, founder of the New Citizen Movement, to four years in prison. A diversionary tactic? It seems to have worked. In the wake of Xu’s sentencing, world media outlets forgot about the offshore leaks and corruption, leaving President Xi and his greedy state servants alone.

Xu Zhiyong, a 40-year-old human rights defender, supported President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. With his mild political proposals, Xu’s movement attracted thousands of followers who assisted him in calling for the declaration of government officials’ assets in 2013. Xu, who has been detained since April, is now officially sentenced on charges of “assembling a crowd to disrupt public order.”

However, Xu Zhiyong is not the only causality of censorship. Seven other human rights activists from the New Citizen Movement, along with Zhao Changqing, a dissident writer and member of the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC), have been tried for “assembling a crowd to disrupt public order,” in Beijing and Guangzhou, days after the ICIJ report was released. But even before the report debuted, ICPC member Zhang Lin was tried for the same charge in Bangbu City, Anhui Province. Furthermore, Ilham Tohti, a member of Uyghur PEN, and an associate professor of economics at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing, was imprisoned in January of this year for his “inciting” and “dissenting” remarks.

Even though it’s just as ridiculous and contorted, the legal term “assembling a crowd to disrupt public order” seems to have replaced the notorious “inciting subversion of the state power.” In this, the year of the horse, China’s record of human rights violations is galloping along cavalier as ever.

There is an old verse in the classical history book, Guoyu (5 cen. B.C.), which documents the ancient rulers’ political wisdom: “It is more dangerous to stop the mouths of the people than to block the course of a river.” While we don’t expect the rulers in China to have ancient wisdom, one can only block the river, the internet, and suppress people’s opinion and will for so long, until the fallout is fatal.

About the Author

Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.

View all articles by Tienchi Martin-Liao

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