The furor caused by the publication of “China Leaks” in January 2014 swept across the world and had China’s leadership scrambling to censor major media websites from The Guardian in the U.S. and the U.K. to El País in Spain and Ming Pao in Hong Kong. Without the power of the web propagating the story, nobody would have noticed the massive effort to black out the investigation’s findings. Some described it as one of China’s biggest censorship efforts in history.
“China Leaks” was a complex and risky cross-border investigation that exposed how close relatives of President Xi Jinping and other Chinese communist leaders use offshore tax havens to shroud their wealth.
The “onshore” assets of Chinese officials have been revealed in recent years by reporters working with public records. But until now nobody had been able to systematically uncover the hidden financial deals that top leaders and their families have struck in secrecy-cloaked locales such as the British Virgin Islands.
The key to this reporting collaboration was the mix of research through secure online platforms and data analysis, which allowed reporters to sift through more than 37,000 names in Western and Chinese characters and find key public and corporate officials. The teamwork also helped produce one of the project’s main features: an interactive graphic focusing on the biggest names that worked in any device and was published in 10 countries and in six languages.
The project resulted in more than 2 million trackable pageviews (counting ICIJ.org, our searchable database and partners’ websites that used our tracking code).
ICIJ’s website turned bilingual. We added a project page with the stories in Chinese and made the Offshore Leaks Database available with a Chinese interface. These features expanded the investigation’s reach and made it accessible to Chinese readers, who did everything possible to read the stories. Anti-secrecy activists worked to evade China’s censorship by creating an unblockable version of ICIJ’s site in Chinese and distributing PDF versions of the stories that could slip through the online blackout. The most shared item on Weibo, a Twitter-like Chinese social media website, was our interactive graphic.
Weeks after the publication, a savage “triad-style” attack by a man wielding a meat cleaver on Kevin Lau, the editor of our Hong Kong newspaper partner, led to worldwide condemnation and brought protests about press freedom onto the streets of Hong Kong.
The China reporting was the final phase of a massive two-year reporting effort by The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Secrecy for Sale—a 50-article juggernaut involving 112 journalists and 42 media partners in 58 countries—broke open the system of offshore secrecy used by mobsters, oligarchs and corrupt politicians around the world
The series was based on a leaked cache of secret data 160 times larger in gigabytes than WikiLeaks diplomatic files—a trove of 120,000 secret offshore companies that yielded 2.5 million files. Plumbing so much data required software typically used by law enforcement, as well as building a searchable database and an encrypted forum to connect journalists operating in multiple time zones and languages. At publication, we used an interactive map to show the global scope of the data and the reporting.
Due to the size and complexity of the Greater China data, ICIJ set aside the files for the final phase of the project. Reporting kicked off in July 2013 with a gathering in Asia with reporters from the region, the U.S. and Europe.
Communicating safely was difficult, even when we used PGP, secure forums and VPNs. The names of certain top Chinese officials were only mentioned using previously agreed-upon code names.
The collaborative nature of the reporting shows in our interactive graphic, which depicts the connections of 29 Chinese power figures and their offshore links. The data was researched in Hong Kong and mainland China; edited in New York; fact-checked and coded in Washington DC; illustrated in Chile and published in six different languages—English, French, German, Korean, Spanish and Chinese—across the websites of a dozen media organizations partnering with ICIJ on the story. The interactive resized fluidly to fit in a variety of partner websites, smartphones and tablet screen sizes. It drew more than 250,000 pageviews.
In November 2013 ICIJ’s mainland China partners had to abruptly withdraw from the project. In an encrypted email they explained that they had been warned by government officials to halt the reporting.
The rest of the team pressed ahead and the stories began to unfold on January 21, 2014, in partnership with leading media around the world, including The Guardian (UK), Le Monde (France), El País (Spain), Ming Pao (Hong Kong), Süddeutsche Zeitung (Germany), CommonWealth (Taiwan), among others.
The articles revealed the offshore dealings of close relatives of the small circle of men that rule the country as well as members of the National People’s Congress and executives from state-owned companies entangled in corruption scandals. The investigation also exposed the role of Western banks, including Credit Suisse and UBS, in helping the Chinese elite hide their wealth abroad.
On social media, links to the main English-language story on ICIJ.org were shared more than 7,900 times, including more than 5,000 times on Facebook, while links to the main elements of the Chinese-language version of the story were shared more than 5,800 times. ICIJ’s first tweet to the English-language version of the story had an estimated reach of 1.1 million Twitter users.
The Washington Post described the effort as “no small feat for Western journalists, working inside a partially closed society like China, to expose such murky dealings.”
“China Leaks” began as an indecipherable list of names and companies. Six months later its revelations shook one of the world’s superpowers at home and abroad, in multiple languages and across multiple platforms. It showed not only the power of investigative reporting but also of journalistic collaboration and digital ingenuity.