Why Prostitutes and Not Pimps?

The following comment by Professor Jerome A. Cohen appeared in the New York Times "Room for Debate" web-feature on July 31, 2010. Professor Cohen was one of several scholars to comment upon China's recent ban on public shaming of criminal suspects.

Some years ago, I went to the city of Fushun in northeast China to meet the deputy mayor in an effort to settle a dispute that started with a Chinese company's fraud against its American joint venture partner. I was prepared to report the case to the police and prosecutors if necessary but could hardly be confident whether I would be taken seriously.

As I approached Fushun by taxi, I was passed by a long parade of open trucks that interested me more than it did the roadside pedestrians who took little note. In the open part of each truck stood three hapless Chinese, each held by the scruff of the neck by a uniformed policeman and each wearing a large sign with the name "Economic Criminal."

It was not clear where they were going or had come from. Were they en route to a public accusation, a mass trial or sentencing or even a mass execution? Or was this vehicle parade, held during one of China's periodic "strike hard" campaigns against crime, simply a public deterrent against further misconduct?

I told the mayor, who was responsible for supervising the defrauding company, how happy I was to see that economic crime was being vigorously suppressed. He got the point and settled amicably.

Every government "shames." The questions are always: how, for what purposes and with what effects? Some government actions are designed to shame, but shame is often a byproduct of other actions that serve less controversial purposes.

The Chinese people continue to be troubled by crime and need effective police protection. Yet their increasingly educated and "rights conscious" society increasingly condemns police arrogance, brutality and errors. Memories of the public humiliation, torture, suicide and killing of the Cultural Revolution are still in the minds of mature citizens, and the Internet and, occasionally, investigative journalists reveal and ridicule today's law enforcement scandals.

Ordinary Chinese who formerly had no voice are beginning to express a strong desire for equality, fairness and justice and for recognition of individual dignity in daily life. They now ask: Why are alleged prostitutes paraded before they are convicted? What about their patrons and pimps and the corrupt police who will let them work again as soon as the "strike hard" campaign is over?

Will this latest attempt by the central government to stop this form of "shaming" succeed? Those who understand China's government have a saying: "The center has its policies. The locality has its ways of evading them."

To view the full debate, "Why Shaming Has Lost Power in China," please follow this link. 

A Scholar's Insight Into China's Budding Legal System

This article was published in the New York Times on July 28, 2010 under the title, "A Scholar’s Insight Into China’s Budding Legal System."

Author: Richard Bernstein

NEW YORK — It was the early 1970s, and Jerome A. Cohen, at the time a specialist on China at Harvard Law School, was having dinner with Prime Minister Zhou Enlai in Beijing.

“I told Zhou, ‘You should put somebody on the International Court of Justice,”’ Mr. Cohen recalled. “Well, he and the other Chinese officials at the dinner laughed uproariously. They thought I was Jack Benny. Why would Communist China want to put somebody on a court where they’d be outvoted by all those capitalist judges?

“But they’ve done it,” Mr. Cohen said, illustrating one of the things that seems normal in China today but that was almost unthinkable when China’s opening to the world was brand new. “They’ve staffed all international organizations with excellent legal talent.”

Mr. Cohen, who essentially created the U.S. study of law in the People’s Republic of China, has been following developments in Chinese law for roughly half a century, lately as professor of law at New York University and as a frequent commentator on various legal and human rights cases in China.

It’s fair to say that when Mr. Cohen got started, the U.S. study of modern Chinese law didn’t exist, and neither really did law in China. And so, he’s had a privileged view of a remarkable development, the creation virtually from scratch of the entire Chinese legal system.

Mr. Cohen recently celebrated his 80th birthday, which seemed a good time to ask him to assess how China has done over the years.

Most people who follow the frequent accounts of human rights violations in China would answer that China hasn’t done very well, and when it comes to human rights, Mr. Cohen largely agrees. In the last few years he has become a major source of information about human rights, or their absence, in China, his specialty being the instances where China fails to observe its own law.

Only last week Mr. Cohen published an article on the case of Xue Feng, a naturalized U.S. citizen recently sentenced to eight years in prison in China for helping his U.S. employer purchase a commercial database on Chinese oil resources — an act that the Chinese Ministry of State Security deemed to be a violation of the country’s catchall state secrets law.

Mr. Cohen’s article, published in The South China Morning Post and in Chinese in The China Times on Taiwan — both newspapers that are paid attention to inside China — listed at least half a dozen instances in which the police or prosecutors broke China’s own law in their handling of Mr. Xue’s case.

After he was seized by the Chinese police in November 2007, for example, Mr. Xue was held incommunicado for months in a secret prison. He was tortured. He didn’t have access to legal counsel for about a year. And his trial was closed not only to the public but to Mr. Xue’s family — all in blatant violation of China’s own Criminal Procedure Law.

In addition, the U.S. Consulate wasn’t informed of the arrest of Mr. Xue for 32 days, rather than the four days provided for in the two countries’ consular agreement.

But while Mr. Cohen has the expertise to point out these violations and to publicize them, he takes a moderate and balanced view of the overall picture, seeing some promise in the creation of an entire legal culture that simply didn’t exist before.

“There are now some 200,000 judges, close to 180,000 prosecutors, roughly 170,000 lawyers, and thousands of law professors, as well as tens of thousands of people with legal training who staff local, regional and central government agencies and most large enterprises,” Mr. Cohen said. “And while they have different viewpoints, they all do have an interest in promoting a legal system that’s blatantly inadequate in some respects, but does well in others.”

Over the years, Mr. Cohen has met with members of numerous legal delegations organized by the Chinese Supreme Court that have visited the United States, including one soon to arrive to study punishment policies — “because they want to improve, and they know they are under enormous criticism abroad because of their death sentence policy.”

“Last year a delegation came to study exclusion of illegally obtained evidence, an effort to stop coerced confessions and torture,” Mr. Cohen said, pointing out that last month China published new rules trying to ensure that coerced confessions wouldn’t be admitted in courts.

“But,” Mr. Cohen said, “when it comes to the most basic questions of the fundamental decencies that every government should observe toward its own citizens, this government and this party have failed to cut the mustard.”

It’s a paradox, explained in part by Mr. Cohen as an unintended consequence of China’s efforts to build a legal system, which its leaders want for the sake of credibility and legitimacy.

“They’ve done a lot to create an awareness of law and rights, and they’ve trained a series of overlapping legal elites that want to use their legal educations to help people defend those rights,” Mr. Cohen said.

But with more and more people seeing the law as a means of challenging arbitrary authority — by protesting being evicted from their homes by real estate developers, for example — the security apparatus steps in to enforce what China often calls “social stability.”

“The first reaction of the leaders is repression,” he said. “And in cases that involve state security, they’re not too fastidious about their own law.”

Mr. Cohen has what might be called the foreigners’ advantage in calling attention to China’s human rights shortcomings. He can freely write and publish, where Chinese colleagues cannot. And, while he has no doubt angered the authorities from time to time, he is clearly held in high esteem by many in the budding Chinese legal world itself.

In May this year, Tsinghua University Law School in Beijing held a conference on criminal justice and the role of defense lawyers in honor of Mr. Cohen’s 80th birthday, which would seem to be a sign of progress in itself, even if, as is often the case in China, a note of repression marred the event. At the last minute, one leading Chinese criminal defense lawyer was removed from the program by the authorities — no explanation provided.


Professor Cohen cited in New York Times article on overturn of Wu Ying's death sentence

This article was originally published in The New York Times on April 20, 2012 under the title, “Chinese court overturns a young tycoon's death sentence."

BEIJING — The Supreme People’s Court on Friday overturned the death penalty against a 31-year-old woman who was convicted of financial fraud three years ago after becoming rich through a company that sold beauty products and other goods.

The case of the woman, Wu Ying, ignited an enormous outcry in China, especially on the Internet, and strengthened public criticism of the death penalty.

Xinhua, the state news agency, reported that the supreme court, which agreed in February to review the case, refused to approve the death sentence imposed by a lower court and said that the sentence needed to be revised by the High People’s Court of Zhejiang, a coastal province that is home to Ms. Wu and many other entrepreneurs.

Ms. Wu was sentenced to death in December 2009 by the Jinhua Intermediate People’s Court in Zhejiang for cheating investors out of $60.2 million. Ms. Wu, the founder of Bense Holding Group, raised $122 million from investors between 2005 and 2007, according to official reports.

Her supporters said she had been transparent in her business dealings and had not tried to hoodwink investors. Rather, they said, she was trying to raise money through private financing and loans. In China, private entrepreneurs can have a tough time getting financing from state banks, which prefer to lend to state-owned enterprises. In Zhejiang, and particularly in the manufacturing city of Wenzhou, near Ms. Wu’s hometown, underground lending markets catering to ambitious entrepreneurs have sprung up as a result.

Critics of the lower court’s decision also said that double standards had been applied in Ms. Wu’s case: well-connected defendants convicted of financial fraud appeared to get more lenient sentences, they said, than did Ms. Wu, a self-made tycoon who quit school as a teenager.

Opponents of the death penalty praised the supreme court’s decision and posted triumphant comments on microblogs, where discussion of Ms. Wu’s case had gained the most traction, especially among intellectuals.

“This is a victory for Internet public opinion in China,” wrote Hu Xijin, the editor of Global Times, a populist newspaper that often takes a nationalistic line. “I still say this: No murder, no death penalty. This applies to everyone.”

He Bing, the outspoken vice dean of the law school at the China University of Political Science and Law, wrote, “It should be recognized that the Internet provides a convenient venue for public supervision of justice.”

But in its ruling, the supreme court reaffirmed the guilty verdict in the case. That raises the prospect of Ms. Wu’s supporters continuing to lobby the courts to overturn the original verdict.

“Wu obtained an extremely large sum of money through fraudulent fund-raising, causing severe losses to the victims, undermining the national financial order and creating extremely harmful effects, and thus entails a penalty in line with the law,” the supreme court said in its ruling, according to Xinhua.

In an online interview with Internet users, Ms. Wu’s father, Wu Yongzheng, said he was “not satisfied” with the review by the supreme court and did not trust the court in Zhejiang to resentence his daughter.

Jerome A. Cohen, a scholar of Chinese law at New York University, said in an e-mail interview that the supreme court decided that the accused need not be sentenced to immediate execution, opening the way for a new sentence, including death with a two-year suspension. That usually means that the convicted person will never be executed; after two years of good behavior, he or she might get a life sentence.

“But, by sending the case back for resentencing, it leaves open the possibility that Wu may immediately get an even lighter sentence than a two-year suspended death penalty, such as 15 years,” Professor Cohen said. “This seems a typical Chinese judicial compromise between what those who call for the death penalty wanted and what Wu’s many supporters, both popular and professional, have called for.”

China executes more criminals than any other nation, but it is not unusual for a high court to reject a death sentence after a review. People following Ms. Wu’s case expected the supreme court to reject the original sentence after Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said at a news conference in March that the court should handle her case carefully.

Some people say the supreme court’s decision could also be related to a political scandal that has enveloped the highest ranks of the Communist Party.

Famously, there were no rejections by higher courts of any of the 13 recent death sentences that resulted from what was billed as an anticrime campaign in the western metropolis of Chongqing. That campaign, called “smash the black,” was started by Bo Xilai, the city’s party chief and ambitious member of the central Politburo.

But Mr. Bo was removed from his Chongqing post in March and is now under investigation for “serious disciplinary violations” while his wife, Gu Kailai, is being investigated in the murder of a British businessman, Neil Heywood. Many prominent lawyers say the smash the black campaign was an affront to the justice system, and some victims of it say it was an effort by Mr. Bo to destroy his or his allies’ personal enemies.

Li Bibo and Edy Yin contributed research.

Please click this link to follow more news on China published in the New York Times. 

To access the Global Times, please follow this link to their website. 

Please click this link to read more about Bo Xilai's political scandal through the New York Times article, "Briton's Death Is Thrust to Center of China Scandal Over Bo Xilai."

Professor Cohen cited in New York Times report on Ping An

This article was originally published in The New York Times on November 24, 2012 under the title, “Lobbying, a Windfall, and a Leader's Family."

SHENZHEN, China — The head of a financially troubled insurer was pushing Chinese officials to relax rules that required breaking up the company in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis.

The survival of Ping An Insurance was at stake, officials were told in the fall of 1999. Direct appeals were made to the vice premier at the time, Wen Jiabao, as well as the then-head of China’s central bank — two powerful officials with oversight of the industry. For more news on Wen Jiabao published in the New York Times, please follow this link. 

“I humbly request that the vice premier lead and coordinate the matter from a higher level,” Ma Mingzhe, chairman of Ping An, implored in a letter to Mr. Wen that was reviewed by The New York Times.

Ping An was not broken up.

The successful outcome of the lobbying effort would prove monumental.

Ping An went on to become one of China’s largest financial services companies, a $50 billion powerhouse now worth more than A.I.G., MetLife or Prudential. And behind the scenes, shares in Ping An that would be worth billions of dollars once the company rebounded were acquired by relatives of Mr. Wen.

The Times reported last month that the relatives of Mr. Wen, who became prime minister in 2003, had grown extraordinarily wealthy during his leadership, acquiring stakes in tourist resorts, banks, jewelers, telecommunications companies and other business ventures. Please click this link to read more on the "hidden riches" of Wen Jiabao's family. 

The greatest source of wealth, by far, The Times investigation has found, came from the shares in Ping An bought about eight months after the insurer was granted a waiver to the requirement that big financial companies be broken up.

Long before most investors could buy Ping An stock, Taihong, a company that would soon be controlled by Mr. Wen’s relatives, acquired a large stake in Ping An from state-owned entities that held shares in the insurer, regulatory and corporate records show. And by all appearances, Taihong got a sweet deal. The shares were bought in December 2002 for one-quarter of the price that another big investor — the British bank HSBC Holdings — paid for its shares just two months earlier, according to interviews and public filings.

By June 2004, the shares held by the Wen relatives had already quadrupled in value, even before the company was listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. And by 2007, the initial $65 million investment made by Taihong would be worth $3.7 billion.

Corporate records show that the relatives’ stake of that investment most likely peaked at $2.2 billion in late 2007, the last year in which Taihong’s shareholder records were publicly available. Because the company is no longer listed in Ping An’s public filings, it is unclear if the relatives continue to hold shares.

It is also not known whether Mr. Wen or the central bank chief at the time, Dai Xianglong, personally intervened on behalf of Ping An’s request for a waiver, or if Mr. Wen was even aware of the stakes held by his relatives.

But internal Ping An documents, government filings and interviews with bankers and former senior executives at Ping An indicate that both the vice premier’s office and the central bank were among the regulators involved in the Ping An waiver meetings and who had the authority to sign off on the waiver.

Only two large state-run financial institutions were granted similar waivers, filings show, while three of China’s big state-run insurance companies were forced to break up. Many of the country’s big banks complied with the breakup requirement — enforced after the financial crisis because of concerns about the stability of the financial system — by selling their assets in other institutions.

Ping An issued a statement to The Times saying the company strictly complies with rules and regulations, but does not know the backgrounds of all entities behind shareholders. The company also said “it is the legitimate right of shareholders to buy and sell shares between themselves.”

In Beijing, China’s foreign ministry did not return calls seeking comment for this article. Earlier, a Foreign Ministry spokesman sharply criticized the investigation by The Times into the finances of Mr. Wen’s relatives, saying it “smears China and has ulterior motives.”

After The Times reported last month on the family’s wealth, lawyers representing the family said the article contained unspecified errors and that the family reserved the right to take legal action.

In addition, the Chinese government blocked access to the English-language and Chinese-language Web sites of The Times in China — and continues to do so — saying the action was “in accordance with laws and rules.” For more information on the Chinese government's censorship of the New York Times, please follow this link. 

Neither Mr. Wen, who is expected to retire in March, nor Mr. Dai, who is now the head of the National Social Security Fund, could be reached for comment.

Western and Chinese bankers and lawyers involved in Ping An’s 2004 Hong Kong stock listing and a subsequent 2007 listing in Shanghai said they did not know that relatives of Mr. Wen had acquired large stakes in the company.

Executives at Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, which once held sizable stakes in Ping An and served as lead underwriters for the Hong Kong public offering, also said they were never told of the holdings. At Ping An’s urging, the two investment banks had also appealed in 2000 to Mr. Wen and other regulators for the waiver from the breakup rule. The private equity divisions of the two investment banks sold their combined stakes to HSBC in 2005 for about $1 billion — a 14-fold increase on their initial investment. Please follow this link for more news on private equity published in the New York Times. 

Thousands of pages of publicly available corporate documents reviewed by The Times suggest that the Ping An stakes held by the prime minister’s relatives were concealed behind layers of obscure partnerships rather than being held directly in their names.

In an interview last month, Duan Weihong, a wealthy Wen family friend, said that the shares in Ping An actually belonged to her and that it was an accident that Mr. Wen’s relatives appeared in shareholding records. The process involved borrowing their government identity cards and obtaining their signatures.

China and Hong Kong have detailed regulations on the disclosure of corporate information deemed material to a publicly listed company’s operation, like the identities of large shareholders and details about whether companies controlling large stakes are related parties. But legal experts say enforcement is often lax, particularly inside China. There is also, they say, a culture of nominee shareholders — when one person holds shares on behalf of someone else — that is difficult for even the most seasoned lawyers and accountants to penetrate.

The Times found no indication such regulations or any law was broken, nor any evidence that Mr. Wen held shares in Ping An under his own name.

After reviewing questions from The Times, the Securities and Futures Commission of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Stock Exchange declined to comment. The China Securities Regulatory Commission in Beijing did not respond to inquiries.

HSBC, today Ping An’s largest shareholder with about 15.5 percent of its stock, declined to comment. The company announced last week that it is considering selling its stake in Ping An as part of a broad effort to raise capital.

Ping An today is a hugely successful conglomerate with revenue of $40 billion last year and about 500,000 insurance agents across China. It is China’s only fully integrated financial institution, with the second largest insurer, a trust company and brokerage house.

In late 2010, Ping An added more firepower, announcing a $4 billion deal that has since given it control of the Shenzhen Development Bank, one of China’s midsize commercial banks. Ping An is now building a new headquarters here in Shenzhen, a spectacular 115-story office tower that was designed by the New York architectural firm Kohn Pedersen Fox. Please click this link for more information on the design of the Ping An Financial Center. 

Ping An’s Close Call

Ma Mingzhe, the Ping An chairman and chief executive, was a high school graduate who got his start as an aide to Yuan Geng, a pioneering figure in some of China’s earliest economic reforms and an early leader of Ping An.

Impressed with Mr. Ma’s intellect, Mr. Yuan put him in charge of human resources at a state-managed industrial park, and eventually at a new insurance firm, Ping An, which took root in Shenzhen, a coastal boomtown.

Mr. Ma’s timing was opportune. China was just beginning to restructure its state-led economy. The government began dismantling the iron rice bowl system, which had guaranteed pensions, social insurance and living quarters to Communist Party cadres.

Although Ping An was founded as a state entity, it was one of the first Chinese insurance companies to experiment with Western management systems, including the use of actuaries and back-office operations, as well as foreign shareholders.

Mr. Ma helped manage the tiny company when it was founded in 1988. Several years later, he was looking for big-name shareholders from the United States.

In 1994, the private equity divisions of Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs each paid about $35 million to acquire 7.5 percent interests in Ping An. At the time, they were the largest foreign investments ever made in a Chinese financial institution.

Much of the company’s early success was attributed to Mr. Ma, a hard-charging executive who was admired for his management and political skills — and for taking risks.

“He had all the qualities of a great entrepreneur,” says Yan Feng, who helped run Ping An’s Shanghai office in the 1990s. “He was a quick learner, knew how to adapt to new situations and was really determined. He’d do whatever it takes to get what he wants.”

But the company’s growth drive ran into trouble in the late 1990s, when China’s economy weakened after the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

The bloated state sector began to collapse, and by 1998, some of the nation’s biggest banks were nearly insolvent.

Ping An’s hard-won fortunes were also evaporating. Like most big Chinese insurers, Ping An had won new clients with investment products that guaranteed big returns over long periods based on the high interest rates banks offered for deposits during a time of inflation. When interest rates plummeted in the mid-1990s, losses piled up.

In 1999, senior executives at Ping An began to acknowledge that the company could soon be insolvent. As a joint-stockholding company, Ping An had big institutional investors, mostly state companies. But many of them refused to come to the company’s aid by purchasing additional shares, which would have provided needed capital.

“They weren’t sure Ping An would survive,” said one former Ping An executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

There was also mounting pressure from the government. Worried about systemic risks to the financial system, regulators in Beijing stepped up their enforcement of laws that required financial institutions to limit the scope of their business activities.

Banks were told to sell their stakes in brokerage houses or trust companies; and insurance companies had to choose to operate in life or property insurance, but not both.

After China’s new insurance regulatory agency was established in 1998, it began pressing Ping An to shed its trust and securities business, and to split its life and property insurance divisions into separate companies.

At a news conference in November 1999, Ma Yongwei, then the chairman of the China Insurance Regulatory Commission, said the agency had already drawn up plans to split up Ping An and other insurers.

“The separation plans have been submitted to the State Council for approval,” Ma Yongwei told the media, adding that they would “deepen reform of the insurance system.”

Pushing Back the Regulators

With his company about to be broken up, Ma Mingzhe, also known as Peter Ma, fired off letters to leaders in Beijing, dictated memos reminding himself to “buy golf clubs” for high-ranking officials, and kept detailed charts outlining the lobbying responsibilities of each top executive at Ping An, according to a copy of those records verified by former Ping An executives.

Mr. Ma focused much of his personal energy on China’s highest government administrative body, the State Council, a 38-member group whose senior leaders were Prime Minister Zhu Rongji and Wen Jiabao, then vice premier. The company also sought the support of Dai Xianglong, the nation’s central bank chief, who also had oversight over the insurance industry.

Mr. Wen was in a unique position. He was head of China’s powerful Central Financial Work Commission, which had been established in 1998 to oversee the country’s banking, securities and insurance regulators, as well as China’s biggest financial institutions.

When Mr. Ma met regulators, he told them his company was facing insolvency and asked them to help shore up the company’s balance sheet by approving a Hong Kong stock offering, according to transcripts of Ping An meetings and interviews with participants.

“Now, Ping An’s life insurance is in a loss, and property insurance and the trust company have thin margins,” Mr. Ma wrote in the Sept. 29, 1999, letter to Mr. Wen. The contents were confirmed by two former top Ping An executives.

Rather than an out-and-out breakup, Mr. Ma offered a middle road. After seeking advice of other investors, Mr. Ma proposed the formation of a holding company that would effectively separate life insurance from property but keep them under one corporate umbrella, along with the securities and trust division.

The company, he said, would re-establish itself as the Ping An Group, according to Ping An documents reviewed by The Times. He then began looking for allies to promote his proposal.

In January 2000, with Mr. Ma’s backing, executives from Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs wrote a joint letter to Mr. Wen arguing that a breakup would “violate China’s policy to encourage and protect foreign investment,” according to a copy of the letter reviewed by The Times. The letter’s authenticity was verified by former executives at the two investment banks.

The American investment banks warned that “as a listed company in the U.S., we could be required to disclose our losses relating to the investment in Ping An, which would not be helpful for the image of China’s policy of reform and opening to the outside.”

The letter came after months of aggressive lobbying on the part of Ping An executives and the two American banks to persuade other high-ranking officials in Beijing, including the central bank and the insurance regulator, to hold Ping An together, according to corporate documents reviewed by The Times.

As early as 1999, executives at Ping An also began making contact with the relatives of Mr. Wen.

Hu Kun, a former Ping An employee who served as Mr. Ma’s staff assistant from 1997 to 2000, recalled a 1999 meeting between Mr. Ma and Zhang Beili, the wife of Mr. Wen.

Mr. Hu said he was not told what transpired at the meeting, but he recalled his boss’s reaction. “Because of that meeting, Chairman Ma got very excited,” said Mr. Hu, who is now living in the United States and who has quarreled with Ping An over 52,000 shares he claimed he was owed.

Corporate records reviewed by The Times indicate that Mr. Ma held an afternoon meeting and then dinner with the prime minister’s wife and Li Chunyan, who ran Ping An’s office in Beijing, on June 17, 1999.

It is not known what they discussed, but the relationship seemed to flourish. Around the same time, a diamond company partly controlled by the relatives of Ms. Zhang began occupying office space at the Ping An office tower in Beijing, according to records the diamond company filed with regulators. Later, a start-up co-founded by Wen Yunsong, the son of Ms. Zhang and the prime minister, won a lucrative technology contract from Ping An, according to interviews with former Ping An executives.

Mr. Ma, who is 56 and still runs Ping An, declined to comment for this article. Interviews with four senior executives who worked with Mr. Ma and Mr. Hu at the corporate headquarters in Shenzhen during the same period corroborate Mr. Hu’s recollections and the content of the documents reviewed by The Times concerning Ping An’s lobbying efforts and meetings with the relatives of Mr. Wen.

In addition, Li Chunyan, who ran the Beijing office, confirmed in a telephone interview that during that period he had brought Ms. Zhang to meet the Ping An chairman, Mr. Ma.

The documents and interviews shed no light on whether those meetings played a role in the decision by government regulators to abandon plans to split up Ping An. But in April 2002, the nation’s top regulators delivered their verdict. With approval of the State Council and insurance regulators, Ping An began the process of transforming itself into a financial conglomerate.

The company was not only allowed to retain property and life insurance licenses, but also licenses that permitted it to operate a brokerage and a trust company. It was also allowed to obtain a bank license.

Together, analysts say, the licenses were worth a fortune in China’s tightly regulated marketplace.

“They were one of the few who got to enjoy these gold-digging benefits,” said Bob Leung, a longtime insurance analyst at UBS in Hong Kong.

By late 2002, Ping An had not simply survived the downturn, its prospects had begun to look bright. The company’s restructuring bolstered revenue and profits. In October of that year, one of the world’s biggest banks, HSBC, agreed to pay $600 million to acquire a 10 percent stake in the company from Ping An. Just over a year later, regulators approved the company’s application to list and sell shares on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

While Ping An was preparing for its listing in Hong Kong, a group of investors with close ties to senior officials in Beijing, including Wen Jiabao, were quietly accumulating large blocks of Ping An stock.

Buying Into Ping An

On Dec. 26, 2002, Ping An filings show, a company run by Duan Weihong, a Wen family friend from the prime minister’s hometown, acquired Ping An stock through a company called Taihong. Soon after, the relatives of Mr. Wen and colleagues of his wife took control of that investment vehicle, the records show.

According to documents Ping An filed ahead of its Hong Kong listing, Taihong acquired 77.7 million shares of Ping An from the China Ocean Shipping Company, a global shipping giant known as Cosco, and 2.2 million more shares from Cosco’s Dalian subsidiary. A two-for-one stock split doubled the number of shares Taihong owned. So in June 2004, just before Ping An’s Hong Kong offering, Taihong held 159.8 million shares, or about 3.2 percent of Ping An’s stock, according to public filings.

In an interview, Ms. Duan said she had paid about 40 cents a share at current exchange rates, or a total of $65 million, to acquire the shares.

The price seems to have been a huge and unusual discount, analysts say, since HSBC had two months earlier acquired its 10 percent stake for about $1.60 a share, according to public filings.

Cosco did not return calls seeking comment.

For Taihong, it was a blockbuster purchase. By 2007, when the price of Ping An’s stock peaked, the 159 million shares were valued at $3.7 billion — though by 2007 Taihong had already significantly reduced its stake, according to public filings.

While Taihong was the shareholder of record, the beneficiaries of the Ping An deal were cloaked behind more than a dozen investment vehicles controlled by the relatives of Mr. Wen, including two brothers-in-law, a sister-in-law, as well as several longtime colleagues and business partners of his wife, Zhang Beili, according to corporate and regulatory documents. All of them were listed, along with Ms. Duan, as the owners of Taihong.

And by 2007, the prime minister’s mother, who is now 91, was listed on public documents as holding $120 million worth of Ping An stock through a pair of investment companies linked to Taihong.

Ms. Duan, who says she got to know the prime minister’s family in 2000, said that she bought the Ping An shares for her own personal account. The Wen relatives only appear in the Taihong shareholding records, she said, because her company borrowed the government-issued identity cards of other people — mistakenly, she said, from relatives of the prime minister — to help mask her own Ping An stake from the public.

“In the end,” Ms. Duan said, “I received 100 percent of the returns.”

The Fallout

In 2001, China issued new regulations that put restrictions on trading in listed shares by Communist Party members and their families.

For instance, the rules barred party officials in charge of a state-owned company from using their parents, children — or even their children’s spouse’s relatives — to trade stocks of a listed state-owned company.

The Times found no indication that Mr. Wen shared inside information with family members.

But there are many unanswered questions about the relatives’ holdings, analysts consulted by The Times said, like who might have known about the relatives’ purchases and whether anyone had a legal obligation to disclose that information.

Executives at Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs say they were unaware of the share purchases and were not involved in the transactions.

The companies also said that a typical I.P.O. process is unlikely to uncover the ultimate identity of shareholders who are hiding behind layers of investment vehicles using unrecognizable names.

According to regulations in Hong Kong and China, publicly listed companies and their professional partners who help sell shares to the public are legally obligated to disclose the identities of only those shareholders controlling a stake larger than 5 percent. The Times found that at its peak, Taihong, the investment vehicle tied to the Wen family, never held more than a 3.2 percent stake.

Another question that remains unanswered is how Taihong was able to buy shares of Ping An at a price that appears to have been highly discounted. By late 2002, Ping An had already become a hot I.P.O. prospect following a big investment by HSBC.

The answers to some of the questions, legal experts say, may turn on who was involved in brokering the deal that led to the relatives’ acquiring shares in Ping An in the period before the company’s public offering in 2004, and whether the deal-makers were seeking to gain favors from the regulators.

“The key questions are: why were these people chosen, and on what terms did they get the shares?” said Jerome A. Cohen, a professor at New York University Law School and an expert on China’s legal system. “Obviously, everyone would like to get in before a hot I.P.O.”