Sign up for PM Award Updates!

Big China presence for ‘Panama Papers’ law firm

April 5, 2016

The Panamanian law firm at the heart of a massive leak of offshore banking records has more offices in China than any other country, its website shows, raising questions about its activities in the Communist-ruled country.

The scandal erupted on Sunday when media groups began revealing the results of a year-long investigation into a trove of 11.5 million documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, which specialises in creating offshore shell companies.

At least eight current or former members of China’s Politburo Standing Committee, the ruling party’s most powerful body, have been implicated, according to reports.

Mossack Fonseca operates branches in eight Chinese cities, including Hong Kong, its website showed Tuesday.

The British-based Guardian newspaper said an internal Mossack Fonseca survey found the biggest proportion of its offshore company owners came from mainland China, followed by Hong Kong.

Under President Xi Jinping, Beijing has launched a much-publicised anti-corruption drive, but has not instituted systemic reforms such as public declarations of assets to try to combat the scourge.

Among those named in the “Panama Papers” are close associates of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, and President Xi’s brother-in-law, who was previously identified in a New York Times investigation into the wealth accumulated by Xi’s family.

Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson and Barcelona striker Lionel Messi have also been named.

– ‘Disinformation’ –

Chinese media have largely avoided reporting on the leaks, and social media have been scrubbed of references to them, with foreign news broadcasters such as the BBC blacked out when they report on the issue.

In an editorial on Tuesday, the Global Times, a newspaper with close links to the ruling Communist Party, implied the leaks were part of a “disinformation” campaign by Western forces.

It did not mention any of the Chinese revelations, focusing instead on the allegations involving Putin, and nor did a report by the Shanghai Daily, which is linked to the government of the commercial hub.

“The documents revealed do have basic political targets”, the Global Times said, adding that “Washington has demonstrated particular influence” in previous leaks of sensitive information to the media.

Corrupt Chinese officials have moved more than $120 billion overseas, according to a 2011 report by the central People’s Bank of China.

Offshore companies are not illegal and can be used for legitimate business needs, but commonly feature in corruption cases, where they are used to secretly move ill-gotten gains abroad.

Mossack Fonseca’s offices in China include the major financial centres of Shanghai and Shenzhen, as well as port cities Qingdao and Dalian, but also lesser-known provincial capitals such as Shandong’s Jinan, known for its links to China’s coal industry, and Hangzhou in Zhejiang, along with Ningbo, also in the eastern province.

Fallen political star Bo Xilai was once the mayor of Dalian, and at least 48 officials from Shandong have been caught up in Beijing’s anti-graft campaign according to information maintained by the Asia Society on its Chinafile website.

The Panana Papers document trove was anonymously leaked to German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung and shared with more than 100 media groups by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). More information is expected over the coming days and weeks.

In a statement, Mossack Fonseca has denied any wrongdoing, saying: “Our firm has never been accused or charged in connection with criminal wrongdoing,” and adding that it has always complied with relevant laws and regulations.

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.