Two partners from leading Beijing law firms have jointly issued a statement on behalf of members of Chinese premier Wen Jiabao's family dismissing as "untrue" an October 25 New York Times story reporting that family members have amassed a fortune of at least $2.7 billion over the last two decades.
Wang Weidong, Beijing managing partner of Grandall Law firm, and Bai Tao, a corporate and disputes resolution partner at Jun He Law Offices, issued a statement Sunday to the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong saying they are acting on behalf of Wen's family. As premier, Wen is the No. 2 leader in the Chinese government after President Hu Jintao.
"The so-called 'hidden riches' of the Wen Jiabao's family members in the New York Times' report does not exist," the lawyers said in the statement. They said some family members had engaged in business activities but had not acted illegally in any way. Wang and Bai specifically denied the part of the Times story reporting that Wen's mother had an investment in her name worth at least $120 million five years ago.
"We will continue to make clarifications regarding untrue reports by the New York Times, and reserve the right to hold it legally responsible," they concluded in their statement.
Both Wang and Bai did not respond to requests for comments. According to the Times, the Chinese government has blocked access to the newspaper's website throughout China.
Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Times, said the newspaper was confident of its story. "We are standing by our story, which we are incredibly proud of and which is an example of the quality investigative journalism The Times is known for," she said.
Chinese legal experts interviewed by the Post said the statement did not likely indicate plans for a defamation suit, however. Peking University law professor He Weifang said the Wen family likely wanted to proclaim their innocence but would not want to engage in a suit that could spin "out of control."
The Times reported that Wen's relatives had accumulated shares in banks, jewelers, telecommunications companies and infrastructure projects, sometimes via offshore entities. It also reported that Wen's 90-year-old mother, Yang Zhiyun, previously had a $120 million stake in Ping An Insurance Group. Wen's wife, Zhang Beili, was said to have grown rich through diamond trading, while their son, Wen Yunsong, made large profits through private equity investments.
The Times has published its report at a sensitive time as Chinese politicians prepare for a once-every-10-years transition of power at the 18th Communist Party Congress, which will start on November 8. Wen is due to retire from his posts next March but many Chinese leaders retain power behind the scenes. According to experts interviewed by the Times, revelations about his family's wealth may diminish Wen's standing after he steps down.
The lawyers who issued the statement on behalf of the Wen family are both prominent corporate lawyers who frequently advise multinationals on doing business in China. Wang's clients have included General Motors Co., AT&T Inc. and IBM Corp., among others. Bai, who earned her J.D. at Cornell Law School, also largely advises foreign companies on intellectual property and other matters in China. She previously co-founded another leading Beijing firm, Commerce & Finance Law Offices.