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China censors Namibia corruption case that may touch president's son

It has blocked any references to the investigation even though Hu Haifeng is not a suspect, underscoring the taboo against covering China’s 'princelings.'

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The very whiff of a scandal that might brush the president's son has been a red flag to China's ever-vigilant censors.

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Two leading news websites, Sina.com and 163.com, which carried stories on the Nuctech case on their technology channels, without naming Hu, were blocked – an unusually strong reaction from authorities, says Xiao Qiang, a professor of journalism at the University of California-Berkeley and editor of China Digital Times. Internet searches on keywords like "Namibia bribery" are now denied, a common tactic in China.

The severity of the censorship underlines the strict taboos in play, says Mr. Qiang. "This is more than princelings. This is the current's president's son. It can't be more sensitive than that," he says.

Dynastic politics

As well as in business, dynastic politics are strong within China's ruling party. A 2007 congress saw the promotion of several princelings to senior slots, including vice-premier Xi Jinping, widely seen as China's leader-in-waiting. His father, Xi Zhongxun also served as vice-premier under Mao Zedong before being purged and later rehabilitated. 

Analysts agree that China's princelings have an advantage in businesses that rely on access to senior policymakers. But charting a political career can be more complex, and a family name isn't enough to assure their rise, according to Li Datong, former editor of a reformist magazine in Beijing

Nuctech supplies security scanners to airports in China and around the world. It began as a technology research unit in Tsinghua University in Beijing. Its 2008 contract to supply scanners to Namibia was worth $55 million. 

Pushing case could alienate big ally

Like many African countries, Namibia has been receptive to increased Chinese trade and investment.

But much of China's financing hinges on contracts for infrastructure projects going to Chinese companies. That adds to the disquiet in Namibia over the latest allegations, says Graham Hopwood, executive director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, a think tank at the University of Namibia in Windhoek.

"Some members of the ruling party arguing that the [Nuctech] investigation shouldn't push China too hard, because they see China as an important ally. On the other hand, there are those who say that corruption by powerful foreign companies is a threat to Namibia's national interests," he says.

Scott Baldauf contributed reporting from Johannesburg.

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