Barboza’s Early Audacity Prepared Him For His China Corruption Articles

In the 1990s, David Barboza — then a sophomore at Boston University — wanted to emulate authors such as Robert Caro, J. Anthony Lucas and Neil Sheehan because he too desired to become a journalist and historian. “So I had this crazy idea … that I would call some of the great figures in history,” Barboza told attendees at the Tuesday working lunch, to interview them for his student papers.

So he audaciously called Dean Rusk, secretary of state for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, who surprisingly took Barboza’s call and talked with him about the Vietnam War. Barboza successfully interviewed other notable history figures.    

Flash forward to 2012, and Barboza — then The New York Times Shanghai bureau chief — was about to publish the first of a series of articles showing corruption in high levels of the Chinese government. “The New York Times felt that it was important to give the government an opportunity to respond,” Barboza said. “To my great surprise … just like calling Dean Rusk … the family of the [Chinese] prime minister took my call.” 

Audacity can pay off. The ACFE presented Barboza with its Guardian Award — presented annually to a journalist “whose determination, perseverance and commitment to the truth has contributed significantly to the fight against fraud.”

Since the beginning of Barboza’s New York Times assignment in China, he’d heard how high-ranking Chinese government officials and their offspring — the “princelings” — had benefited financially from the country’s economic transformation by receiving billions of dollars of “secret shares” in corporations. 

Barboza didn’t think it was possible to discover if the top governmental families were surreptitiously benefiting from these financial arrangements. “What I was told was that there are no records in China,” he said. “And if there were records you wouldn’t be able to get them or read them. And if you got the records and read them and published them you would be in big trouble. Your life would be in danger.” 

However, Barboza decided to see if he could solve at least a small part of the puzzle. So in the beginning of 2011, he and his team began to concentrate on the family of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, which was widely considered to be involved in Chinese business. The prime minister’s wife was known as the “diamond queen” because she controlled the diamond industry in China, and the son probably ran a major private equity firm, Barboza said. Also, it was common knowledge that the PM’s family was somehow involved in Ping An — one of the largest insurance, banking and financial services holding companies in the world. (Ping An means “safe and well.”)

Companies in China can be listed in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Shenzhen, Barboza said. He began searching the Ping An prospectus in the Hong Kong listings (because they’re in English) and found several Chinese companies he’d never heard of, which held billions of dollars in shares. He then turned to an agency he’d just discovered — the State Administration Ministry of Commerce. “I’d been in China eight years and I had never heard of this agency, which actually had private corporation records,” he says. For no more than $100, the agency shipped Barboza boxes of records.

From there one lead pointed to many others — including listings of relatives on tombstones — and Barboza was able to definitely write that Wen Jibao’s son, daughter, younger brother and brother-in-law had become extraordinarily wealthy during his leadership. According to Barboza’s first article in the eventual series (, the records indicated that the PM’s relatives — including his wife — have controlled assets worth at least $2.7 billion.

According to the article, the names of the relatives in many cases are hidden behind layers of partnerships and investment vehicles involving friends, work colleagues and business partners. Barboza wrote that, in addition to Ping An Insurance, the holdings included a villa development project in Beijing, a tire factory in northern China and a company that helped build some of Beijing’s Olympic stadiums, including the well-known “Bird’s Nest.” 

In 2013, Barboza was awarded the Pulitizer Prize for International Reporting for his Chinese government corruption reporting. And it all began with an audacious call to Dean Rusk.