China’s online censors went into overdrive on Friday, blocking internet searches and references to Xi Jinping, the man anointed as the country’s president-in-waiting, after US news service Bloomberg published a forensic report on the fortune amassed by his relatives.
Access to Bloomberg’s news feed was also blocked following the story’s publication.
The detailed report could be embarrassing for Mr Xi, who has long cultivated his image as a clean official in a country where government corruption is identified by the ruling Communist party as the single biggest threat to its authoritarian rule.
“Our Bloomberg.com and Businessweek.com websites are currently inaccessible in China in reaction, we believe, to a Bloomberg News story that was published Friday,” said Ty Trippet, a Bloomberg spokesman.
Using publicly available records, Bloomberg identified investments by Mr Xi’s siblings and extended family in companies with total assets of $376 million. In addition, it said the family held an 18 per cent indirect stake in a rare earths company with $1.73 billion in assets and a $20.2 million holding in a publicly traded technology company.
The figures don’t account for liabilities and so do not represent the family’s net worth, Bloomberg said.
The investigation also found an apparently abandoned luxury hillside villa owned by the family in Hong Kong worth an estimated $31.5 million, as well as at least six other Hong Kong properties with a combined estimated value of $24.1 million.
Two people with ties to the Xi family recently told the FT that his siblings had extensive business interests in Hong Kong, China and Canada and the family’s total net worth was believed to be over $1 billion.
Bloomberg was unable to trace any assets to Mr Xi himself, or to his military singer wife, Peng Liyuan, or daughter, Xi Mingze, who studies at Harvard under an assumed name.
There is no evidence that Mr Xi intervened to help his relatives’ businesses or of any wrongdoing by Mr Xi or his extended family. People familiar with the family say Mr Xi has ordered his siblings to “behave themselves” and get out of business on a number of occasions in recent years.
The spotlight has been turned on the assets and business activities of Chinese leaders and their families in recent months after the downfall of Bo Xilai, one of the country’s most senior party leaders, who is under investigation for unspecified “discipline violations”.
His wife, Gu Kailai, has been detained on suspicion of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood.
In the wake of the couple’s downfall it emerged that the extended Bo and Gu families had amassed a large fortune, with assets totalling more than $130 million.
Partly in response to the heightened scrutiny, the government has made it far more difficult to access public records that include personal details of owners of non-public companies, according to people working in the corporate investigation industry.
“There has been a big crackdown since the Bo Xilai scandal broke and it is no longer possible to find personal details on most owners,” one of these people said. “We assume the main reason for this is that the government doesn’t want the public finding out which officials and their families own what.”
People familiar with China’s most powerful political families and members of some of those families say that it is completely normal for relatives of top officials to amass enormous fortunes in business.
While some of these people are accomplished in their own right the general perception is that they have benefited from their family ties.
Political analysts say the enormous concentration of power in the hands of unelected officials who use censorship to stifle opposition and scrutiny means the opportunities for influence-peddling are greater than in most countries.
The fact that the state still controls vast swaths of the economy, combined with decades of economic boom, mean the spoils are also greater than in many other parts of the world.
Additional reporting by Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson in New York