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China damage control over reports of bling

December 26, 2007|Mark Magnier and Tsai Ting-I | Special to The Times

BEIJING — Does she own jade jewelry worth hundreds of thousands of dollars or doesn't she? Only her propaganda team knows for sure.

The mysterious jewelry tale about Zhang Beili, wife of the Chinese premier, surfaced last month when two Taiwanese television stations ran a story about her interest in bling.

In the segments, Taiwanese jewelry dealer Yu Chong-da gushes over how Premier Wen Jiabao's wife bought some exquisite pieces from him at a Beijing trade show in 2006, including a pair of jade earrings worth about $275,000. A second jeweler, Chiou Wei-jung, adds that Zhang also has a taste for emeralds and Taiwanese coral.

Taiwan television is not available in China, but the story was quickly picked up by Duowei, a Chinese-language website based in New York. China blocks sensitive Internet reports, but savvy Chinese web users are able to get around the censors.

China and Taiwan have been at odds since 1949, when the island split with the mainland after a protracted civil war.

China reveals little about its rulers' personal lives. Conspicuous spending is a sensitive topic in a nation with a huge income gap. Fearful that things were spinning out of control, Chinese authorities jumped into damage-control mode.

Within days, the Propaganda Ministry issued blanket orders to the news media not to cover Zhang's jewelry activities, according to a senior Chinese editor who asked not to be identified. Filtering software was updated to block all queries about "Wen's wife" and "jewelry," although searches under her family name still get some hits.

But the strange jewelry tale also underscores China's ability to chill not only its own media, but increasingly, in a sign of its rising global power, the overseas Chinese media and business communities.

Across the Taiwan Strait, the two Taiwanese jewelers dived for cover. Within days, Yu and Chiou paid for ads in Taiwan's Apple Daily and Hong Kong's pro-Beijing Ming Pao newspapers denying that Zhang had made any purchases "of significant value."

"She came to make an inspection only," Chiou said. "It was impossible for her to shop on the spot. At least 30 to 50 people accompanied her. There was no way to strike a deal under these circumstances."

Yu and Chiou insisted that their public apologies were not the result of political pressure.

Taiwan's jewelry association also urged Taiwanese broadcaster TVBS to issue a retraction. The network agreed to run a second report that included the jewelers' "clarification."

Chinese-speaking reporters and editors in Taiwan and the United States who picked up the story have asked not to be quoted, citing China's long reach.

"When it comes to reporting really 'sensitive' issues about China, you see the real influence of [the Chinese] government over these Chinese-language media," said Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at UC Berkeley.

Another tool China uses when influencing the overseas Chinese-language media, some analysts said, is nationalism.

"China doesn't even need to intimidate Chinese-language press overseas," said Lu Shih-hsiang, head of Taiwan's Foundation for the Advancement of Media Excellence, a watchdog group. "Many Chinese journalists, in Taiwan and overseas, are more than happy to help China become a superpower as soon as possible. What you see with the Wen jewelry story is just a typical case."

In a political system where leaders' public appearances and utterances are heavily scripted, damaging leaks spur speculation that a rival is responsible, or at the very least, is poised to benefit.

"This report certainly created an enjoyable show for other political factions," said He Qinglian, a former mainland journalist and author of "Media Control in China."

The issue is additionally sensitive because buying fancy jewelry undercuts the premier's humble man-of-the-people persona. Wen is a popular leader known to spend Chinese New Year's Eve in mine shafts eating dumplings with colliers.

Zhang, meanwhile, is no ordinary consumer of baubles. She is a geologist and gemologist who served as vice chairman of the China Assn. of Jewelry until her husband became premier in 2003. Zhang was also president of the Beijing Diamond Corp., a jewelry maker that went on to be listed on the Shanghai stock exchange, and she may retain some control.

It's unclear whether she was interested in the jewels for personal use or as part of a business deal. Either way, it's not the sort of attention her husband welcomes. Some believe Zhang's high-profile jewelry activities may partly explain why she has not accompanied him on any of his overseas trips since he became premier.

Wen and his wife have different styles, according to a 2003 biography of Wen.

Wen met Zhang, who loves to sing and dance, in the western province of Gansu when the two were working on a geological team. At the time, Wen reportedly had three women competing for his attention, but Zhang proved the most determined. One of the ways she reportedly won his heart was by going to his dorm and washing his clothes.

Zhang once groused to colleagues that her modest husband was always asking her to avoid doing anything that might draw attention, according to the biography.

In one story recounted by a former official in Gansu, Zhang bought Wen a suit, hoping to spruce up his image. But Wen insisted on wearing his old traditional blue Chinese suit, telling her that her gift was too good for him.

Times staff writer Magnier reported from Beijing and special correspondent Tsai from Taipei, Taiwan.

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