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Panama Papers Reveal Off-Shore Accounts Held By Chinese Elites


The documents known as the Panama Papers reveal the secrets of powerful people all over the world who use shell companies to hide their money. These files all come from one law firm, Mossack Fonseca, and its biggest market is China. We've known for a long time that wealthy Chinese people put their money in offshore accounts, so I asked Alexa Olesen, a reporter for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, to tell us what she found in these files that was new.

ALEXA OLESEN: We have found a couple of new names, people who hadn't been exposed before as having offshore incorporations. We found relatives of eight current and former members of the Politburo Standing Committee, which is the top ruling body in China. And from the current group of Standing Committee members, there were three relatives - so 3 out of the 7.

SHAPIRO: Now, China's President Xi Jinping has cracked down on corruption. Can these documents give us any insight into how that crackdown has gone?

OLESEN: Well, one of the things that the documents tell us is that Xi Jinping's brother-in-law has three companies that were incorporated through Mossack Fonseca. That is politically sensitive for Xi Jinping because he has made the hallmark of his rule thus far anticorruption at all levels on what he calls tigers and flies - so high-ranking and low-ranking Communist officials. And I think these revelations undermine his commitment to that anticorruption drive.

SHAPIRO: Government censors have blocked Chinese media from reporting on the Panama Papers and tax havens. Do you know if any of this information is getting through to people in China?

OLESEN: It's true that there is a blanket censorship order on, that it's very hard to see any news about this. I saw that the Chinese Foreign Ministry was asked about the Panama Papers on Tuesday, but then the question and the answer were both redacted from the transcript on the Foreign Ministry website. And I've also seen that reports by BBC and others have been blacked out on television. So as soon as they start to queue up, they just get cut off.

SHAPIRO: There have been huge responses to these disclosures in Iceland and other places. What do you think would happen in China if people knew about this?

OLESEN: Well, it's a mixed bag because I think there's a lot of cynicism in China about corruption among the elites, and so there is the assumption that corruption is widespread and that people who are close to either relatives or friends of top leaders - they have special access, and they have been able to enrich themselves through those connections.

So I think it wouldn't come as a huge surprise to many people, but I think that considering the fact that Xi Jinping has made anticorruption such a major plank of his rule, that it would be embarrassing, and it could contribute to a crisis of confidence in the party and leadership.

SHAPIRO: This document dump is so large - more than 11 million documents. And I know that reporters have been combing through them for up to a year. Do you expect there are still big revelations yet to come, or do we pretty much know what the headlights are at this point?

OLESEN: Well, in the China case, I've sort of trolled through the documents for about nine months, looking for names and looking for information. And I feel like I probably only scratched the surface because of the way that some of the incorporations are done. One of the cases that we looked at, for example, was Gu Kailai, who had - she was the wife of a high-ranking Chinese official. And she incorporated a company with a French friend of hers, and so the company was incorporated by him but then held in the name of two proxies. And her name wasn't on it in any way.

So I think that there are probably a lot of companies in there who are held by what's called white gloves, who are proxies for Chinese elites. And I think if we could, you know, find innovative ways of looking at the documents and maybe looking at addresses instead of names or looking at holdings, trying to figure out who actually owns some of these companies, I think that there's probably a lot more information there that we haven't been able to find yet.

SHAPIRO: Alexa Olesen is a reporter for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Thanks a lot.

OLESEN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.