First Click: nothing to see here

April 7th, 2016

The Panama Papers have sent shockwaves across the globe, spurring investigations in several countries and prompting Iceland’s prime minister to resign. But you might not know about it if you’re living in China, where officials have swiftly censored all mention of the biggest data leak in history — a move that could end up backfiring.

China’s government censors reacted quickly to the first reports on the Panama Papers, which disclosed details on the holders of more than 200,000 shell companies listed by the shadowy law firm Mossack Fonseca. A notice sent to media outlets this week ordered editors to delete any reports on the leaks, and any mention of the word “Panama” was blocked on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging service.

It’s of course not surprising that Beijing would react with such aggression. The country has long filtered its internet through the so-called Great Firewall, and proposed rules announced this month would only tighten its control. The Panama Papers also implicate the family members and business contacts of Chinese politicians, including the brother-in-law of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

There is so far no sign that those implicated sought to evade taxes or embezzle money, but the government’s reaction to this first batch of leaks may be telling. The only outlet to mention the story this week was the Communist Party-run Global Times, which published an English-language editorial on Tuesday. "In the internet era, disinformation poses no major risks to Western influential elites or the West," the editorial read. "In the long-run, it will become a new means for the ideology-allied Western nations to strike a blow to non-Western political elites and key organizations." The article made no mention of the connections to China.

Whether China’s blackout will be effective is still in doubt. The government has in recent months cracked down on virtual private networks (VPNs), which allowed users to circumvent filters, though there is clearly interest in the Panama Papers, which would suggest that the information is coming in from somewhere. According to the website FreeWeibo, "Panama" and "Panama file" were still among the most popular blocked queries on Weibo as of Thursday morning.

And as the The Wall Street Journal wrote in an editorial this week, there’s always the risk that China’s aggressive tactics could have unintended consequences. "Shell companies can serve legitimate functions, but censorship will draw more attention to the story," the editorial reads. "In China’s low-trust environment, the public treats the slightest hint of scandal as the tip of a new iceberg."


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