Billions in Hidden Riches for Family of Chinese Leader
The mother of China's prime minister was a schoolteacher in northern China. His father was ordered to tend pigs in one of Mao's political campaigns. And during childhood, "my family was extremely poor," the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, said in a speech last year.
But now 90, the prime minister's mother, Yang Zhiyun, not only left poverty behind — she became outright rich, at least on paper, according to corporate and regulatory records. Just one investment in her name, in a large Chinese financial services company, had a value of $120 million five years ago, the records show.
The details of how Ms. Yang, a widow, accumulated such wealth are not known, or even if she was aware of the holdings in her name. But it happened after her son was elevated to China's ruling elite, first in 1998 as vice prime minister and then five years later as prime minister.
Many relatives of Wen Jiabao, including his son, daughter, younger brother and brother-in-law, have become extraordinarily wealthy during his leadership, an investigation by The New York Times shows. A review of corporate and regulatory records indicates that the prime minister's relatives, some of whom have a knack for aggressive deal-making, including his wife, have controlled assets worth at least $2.7 billion.
In many cases, the names of the relatives have been hidden behind layers of partnerships and investment vehicles involving friends, work colleagues and business partners. Untangling their financial holdings provides an unusually detailed look at how politically connected people have profited from being at the intersection of government and business as state influence and private wealth converge in China's fast-growing economy.
Unlike most new businesses in China, the family's ventures sometimes received financial backing from state-owned companies, including China Mobile, one of the country's biggest phone operators, the documents show. At other times, the ventures won support from some of Asia's richest tycoons. The Times found that Mr. Wen's relatives accumulated shares in banks, jewelers, tourist resorts, telecommunications companies and infrastructure projects, sometimes by using offshore entities.
The holdings include a villa development project in Beijing; a tire factory in northern China; a company that helped build some of Beijing's Olympic stadiums, including the well-known "Bird's Nest"; and Ping An Insurance, one of the world's biggest financial services companies.
As prime minister in an economy that remains heavily state-driven, Mr. Wen, who is best known for his simple ways and common touch, more importantly has broad authority over the major industries where his relatives have made their fortunes. Chinese companies cannot list their shares on a stock exchange without approval from agencies overseen by Mr. Wen, for example. He also has the power to influence investments in strategic sectors like energy and telecommunications.
Because the Chinese government rarely makes its deliberations public, it is not known what role — if any — Mr. Wen, who is 70, has played in most policy or regulatory decisions. But in some cases, his relatives have sought to profit from opportunities made possible by those decisions.
The prime minister's younger brother, for example, has a company that was awarded more than $30 million in government contracts and subsidies to handle wastewater treatment and medical waste disposal for some of China's biggest cities, according to estimates based on government records. The contracts were announced after Mr. Wen ordered tougher regulations on medical waste disposal in 2003 after the SARS outbreak.
In 2004, after the State Council, a government body Mr. Wen presides over, exempted Ping An Insurance and other companies from rules that limited their scope, Ping An went on to raise $1.8 billion in an initial public offering of stock. Partnerships controlled by Mr. Wen's relatives — along with their friends and colleagues — made a fortune by investing in the company before the public offering.
In 2007, the last year the stock holdings were disclosed in public documents, those partnerships held as much as $2.2 billion worth of Ping An stock, according to an accounting of the investments by The Times that was verified by outside auditors. Ping An's overall market value is now nearly $60 billion.
Ping An said in a statement that the company did "not know the background of the entities behind our shareholders." The statement said, "Ping An has no means to know the intentions behind shareholders when they buy and sell our shares."
While Communist Party regulations call for top officials to disclose their wealth and that of their immediate family members, no law or regulation prohibits relatives of even the most senior officials from becoming deal-makers or major investors — a loophole that effectively allows them to trade on their family name. Some Chinese argue that permitting the families of Communist Party leaders to profit from the country's long economic boom has been important to ensuring elite support for market-oriented reforms.
Even so, the business dealings of Mr. Wen's relatives have sometimes been hidden in ways that suggest the relatives are eager to avoid public scrutiny, the records filed with Chinese regulatory authorities show. Their ownership stakes are often veiled by an intricate web of holdings as many as five steps removed from the operating companies, according to the review.
In the case of Mr. Wen's mother, The Times calculated her stake in Ping An — valued at $120 million in 2007 — by examining public records and government-issued identity cards, and by following the ownership trail to three Chinese investment entities. The name recorded on his mother's shares was Taihong, a holding company registered in Tianjin, the prime minister's hometown.
The apparent efforts to conceal the wealth reflect the highly charged politics surrounding the country's ruling elite, many of whom are also enormously wealthy but reluctant to draw attention to their riches. When Bloomberg News reported in June that the extended family of Vice President Xi Jinping, set to become China's next president, had amassed hundreds of millions of dollars in assets, the Chinese government blocked access inside the country to the Bloomberg Web site.
"In the senior leadership, there's no family that doesn't have these problems," said a former government colleague of Wen Jiabao who has known him for more than 20 years and who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "His enemies are intentionally trying to smear him by letting this leak out."
The Times presented its findings to the Chinese government for comment. The Foreign Ministry declined to respond to questions about the investments, the prime minister or his relatives. Members of Mr. Wen's family also declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment.
Duan Weihong, a wealthy businesswoman whose company, Taihong, was the investment vehicle for the Ping An shares held by the prime minister's mother and other relatives, said the investments were actually her own. Ms. Duan, who comes from the prime minister's hometown and is a close friend of his wife, said ownership of the shares was listed in the names of Mr. Wen's relatives in an effort to conceal the size of Ms. Duan's own holdings.
"When I invested in Ping An I didn't want to be written about," Ms. Duan said, "so I had my relatives find some other people to hold these shares for me."
But it was an "accident," she said, that her company chose the relatives of the prime minister as the listed shareholders — a process that required registering their official ID numbers and obtaining their signatures. Until presented with the names of the investors by The Times, she said, she had no idea that they had selected the relatives of Wen Jiabao.
The review of the corporate and regulatory records, which covers 1992 to 2012, found no holdings in Mr. Wen's name. And it was not possible to determine from the documents whether he recused himself from any decisions that might have affected his relatives' holdings, or whether they received preferential treatment on investments.
For much of his tenure, Wen Jiabao has been at the center of rumors and conjecture about efforts by his relatives to profit from his position. Yet until the review by The Times, there has been no detailed accounting of the family's riches.
His wife, Zhang Beili, is one of the country's leading authorities on jewelry and gemstones and is an accomplished businesswoman in her own right. By managing state diamond companies that were later privatized, The Times found, she helped her relatives parlay their minority stakes into a billion-dollar portfolio of insurance, technology and real estate ventures.
The couple's only son sold a technology company he started to the family of Hong Kong's richest man, Li Ka-shing, for $10 million, and used another investment vehicle to establish New Horizon Capital, now one of China's biggest private equity firms, with partners like the government of Singapore, according to records and interviews with bankers.
The prime minister's younger brother, Wen Jiahong, controls $200 million in assets, including wastewater treatment plants and recycling businesses, the records show.
As prime minister, Mr. Wen has staked out a position as a populist and a reformer, someone whom the state-run media has nicknamed "the People's Premier" and "Grandpa Wen" because of his frequent outings to meet ordinary people, especially in moments of crisis like natural disasters.
While it is unclear how much the prime minister knows about his family's wealth, State Department documents released by the WikiLeaks organization in 2010 included a cable that suggested Mr. Wen was aware of his relatives' business dealings and unhappy about them.
"Wen is disgusted with his family's activities, but is either unable or unwilling to curtail them," a Chinese-born executive working at an American company in Shanghai told American diplomats, according to the 2007 cable.
China's 'Diamond Queen'
It is no secret in China's elite circles that the prime minister's wife, Zhang Beili, is rich, and that she has helped control the nation's jewelry and gem trade. But her lucrative diamond businesses became an off-the-charts success only as her husband moved into the country's top leadership ranks, the review of corporate and regulatory records by The Times found.
A geologist with an expertise in gemstones, Ms. Zhang is largely unknown among ordinary Chinese. She rarely travels with the prime minister or appears with him, and there are few official photographs of the couple together. And while people who have worked with her say she has a taste for jade and fine diamonds, they say she usually dresses modestly, does not exude glamour and prefers to wield influence behind the scenes, much like the relatives of other senior leaders.
The State Department documents released by WikiLeaks included a suggestion that Mr. Wen had once considered divorcing Ms. Zhang because she had exploited their relationship in her diamond trades. Taiwanese television reported in 2007 that Ms. Zhang had bought a pair of jade earrings worth about $275,000 at a Beijing trade show, though the source — a Taiwanese trader — later backed off the claim and Chinese government censors moved swiftly to block coverage of the subject in China, according to news reports at the time.
"Her business activities are known to everyone in the leadership," said one banker who worked with relatives of Wen Jiabao. The banker said it was not unusual for her office to call upon businesspeople. "And if you get that call, how can you say no?"
Zhang Beili first gained influence in the 1990s, while working as a regulator at the Ministry of Geology. At the time, China's jewelry market was still in its infancy.
While her husband was serving in China's main leadership compound, known as Zhongnanhai, Ms. Zhang was setting industry standards in the jewelry and gem trade. She helped create the National Gemstone Testing Center in Beijing, and the Shanghai Diamond Exchange, two of the industry's most powerful institutions.
In a country where the state has long dominated the marketplace, jewelry regulators often decided which companies could set up diamond-processing factories, and which would gain entry to the retail jewelry market. State regulators even formulated rules that required diamond sellers to buy certificates of authenticity for any diamond sold in China, from the government-run testing center in Beijing, which Ms. Zhang managed.
As a result, when executives from Cartier or De Beers visited China with hopes of selling diamonds and jewelry here, they often went to visit Ms. Zhang, who became known as China's "diamond queen."
"She's the most important person there," said Gaetano Cavalieri, president of the World Jewelry Confederation in Switzerland. "She was bridging relations between partners — Chinese and foreign partners."
As early as 1992, people who worked with Ms. Zhang said, she had begun to blur the line between government official and businesswoman. As head of the state-owned China Mineral and Gem Corporation, she began investing the state company's money in start-ups. And by the time her husband was named vice premier, in 1998, she was busy setting up business ventures with friends and relatives.
The state company she ran invested in a group of affiliated diamond companies, according to public records. Many of them were run by Ms. Zhang's relatives — or colleagues who had worked with her at the National Gemstone Testing Center.
In 1993, for instance, the state company Ms. Zhang ran helped found Beijing Diamond, a big jewelry retailer. A year later, one of her younger brothers, Zhang Jianming, and two of her government colleagues personally acquired 80 percent of the company, according to shareholder registers. Beijing Diamond invested in Shenzhen Diamond, which was controlled by her brother-in-law, Wen Jiahong, the prime minister's younger brother.
Among the successful undertakings was Sino-Diamond, a venture financed by the state-owned China Mineral and Gem Corporation, which she headed. The company had business ties with a state-owned company managed by another brother, Zhang Jiankun, who worked as an official in Jiaxing, Ms. Zhang's hometown, in Zhejiang Province.
In the summer of 1999, after securing agreements to import diamonds from Russia and South Africa, Sino-Diamond went public, raising $50 million on the Shanghai Stock Exchange. The offering netted Ms. Zhang's family about $8 million, according to corporate filings.
Although she was never listed as a shareholder, former colleagues and business partners say Ms. Zhang's early diamond partnerships were the nucleus of a larger portfolio of companies she would later help her family and colleagues gain a stake in.
The Times found no indication that Wen Jiabao used his political clout to influence the diamond companies his relatives invested in. But former business partners said that the family's success in diamonds, and beyond, was often bolstered with financial backing from wealthy businessmen who sought to curry favor with the prime minister's family.
"After Wen became prime minister, his wife sold off some of her diamond investments and moved into new things," said a Chinese executive who did business with the family. He asked not to be named because of fear of government retaliation. Corporate records show that beginning in the late 1990s, a series of rich businessmen took turns buying up large stakes in the diamond companies, often from relatives of Mr. Wen, and then helped them reinvest in other lucrative ventures, like real estate and finance.
According to corporate records and interviews, the businessmen often supplied accountants and office space to investment partnerships partly controlled by the relatives.
"When they formed companies," said one businessman who set up a company with members of the Wen family, "Ms. Zhang stayed in the background. That's how it worked."