How Chinese offshore data became interactive

Chris Zubak-Skees
April 16, 2014

It's easy to miss the complexity behind apparently simple things. Take the interactive graphic I helped build for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ China Leaks story. It's not an especially complex display, or so it seems. It shows who in China's elite had connections to offshore companies, and tries to explain why these people matter. But behind this simple display was months of concerted work by journalists in at least ten countries.

It began with research. In July of last year, reporters from around the world began combing through a massive leaked data set, looking for connections to powerful Chinese figures. Two databases of offshore companies were carefully packaged into virtualized computers, then shared with reporters in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

To communicate, ICIJ’s partners used something of a private cloud, including a web-based data search tool and open source collaboration software, including a Vanilla forum and OwnCloud file sharing. Bit by bit, they pieced together profiles of the individuals they wanted to feature — among these, Wen Jiabao's son, Xi Jinping's brother-in-law and Li Peng's daughter.

Security was paramount, since the Chinese government routinely censors critical coverage and monitors the journalists who produce it. Connections were encrypted using Virtual Private Networks and the HTTPS protocol, and important information was kept out of emails, which could be easily tracked. Tor, a global system which obscures the origin of web traffic, was considered, but it is frequently blocked in China.

Getting it together

Once the list was compiled, we faced the problem of illustrating these Chinese elite, many of whom were private figures not accustomed to a media spotlight and who did not appear in photos we could use. We trimmed the background on the photos we had, while ICIJ worked with illustrator Jesús Pérez in Santiago, Chile, to create portraits of the rest.

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Copyright 2014 The Center for Public Integrity. This story was published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.