The scandal surrounding the recently purged Chinese Communist Party official Bo Xilai has all the elements of Shakespearean drama: the precipitous fall of a powerful man, a mysterious murder that involves the man’s glamorous wife, and dark secrets that come to light as the plot unfolds.

The scandal is the most serious to hit China in years, and it threatens to cause a fissure within the Communist Party. It has also cast the public glare on the wealth of Party officials. In the past, it would have been nearly impossible to document allegations that Bo Xilai and his wife, Gu Kailai, a high-powered lawyer, used their political connections to enrich themselves.

But this is the new era of investigative reporting. Governments and companies are publishing increasing amounts of information online—yes, even in China. And the ability to find and mine that information gives journalists a competitive edge over their rivals.

In two weeks of intense reporting in February, the feisty, Hong Kong-based, Chinese-language Next Magazine uncovered previously unknown business dealings by Bo, his wife, and their other family members.

In subsequent weeks, reporters at The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and Bloomberg would be on that trail, too, trolling databases around the world to piece together information about the couple, information that in the pre-digital days would have been difficult to find.

The trail was obscured by the fact that the Bo family members used multiple names and aliases. But like many members of the Communist Party elite, they did business in Hong Kong and the West, making it easier for journalists to trace their wealth.

In the past six weeks, reporters have dug into corporate registries, stock exchange filings, and property records databases in jurisdictions around the world. Their digging has confirmed that in the Communist Party, wealth and political power are not only intertwined; both are kept well within the party members’ families.

Bo and his wife had impeccable pedigrees: Their fathers were heroes of the 1949 revolution and were high up in the communist hierarchy, which meant that their offspring were considered Red Nobility or princelings. Despite allegations of corruption and abuse of power, they seemed untouchable.

But on February 6, Bo’s lieutenant, Wang Lijun, fled to the US consulate in Chengdu, supposedly with evidence of corruption and murder involving Bo and his wife, who has since been implicated in the murder of Neil Heywood, a UK businessman. The incident created an international furor and, on March 15, Bo was dismissed from office, his downfall exposing the rifts within the party.

“After the US government confirmed the Wang Lijun incident on February 8, we smelled that something was going to happen to Bo Xilai,” says Vivian Kwok, deputy editor in chief of Next Magazine, “and so we started research on his family’s business connections.” Next is owned by Jimmy Lai, a maverick Hong Kong businessman who is persona non grata in China, and the magazine didn’t have deep sources in the mainland. So it had to rely on what was in the public record.

The wealth trail

Where to start? It helped that a Chinese journalist, Jiang Weiping, had previously published a biography of Bo, which said that that Gu Kailai’s law firm and Gu herself made money by cutting deals for mainland Chinese companies that were doing business in Dalian, a major city and seaport in the northeastern province of Liaoning. Bo was once mayor of Dalian and governor of Liaoning. Jiang himself was a Dalian reporter and was sent to prison for his exposés, including stories on how Bo had covered up evidence of political corruption.

Now living in exile in Toronto, Jiang told Simon Yiu, a 24-year-old reporter for Next, that Gu’s firm acted as a broker for some 200 mainland Chinese companies. But he didn’t have documentary proof. Gu’s law firm—called Ang Dao—has offices in Beijing, Zhengzhou, and Dalian. To confirm Jiang’s lead, Simon Yiu searched the websites of the courts and lawyers’ associations in those cities. These showed when law firms operating in these jurisdictions were established and also listed their lawyers.

Yiu found five lawyers associated with Gu’s firm, so he searched their names on Google and Baidu, the Chinese search engine (most Chinese websites are searchable only through Baidu). He found a number of publicly listed companies that were connected to those lawyers. So he combed through the companies’ websites and downloaded the companies’ annual reports from the Shenzhen and the Shanghai stock exchanges, where they were listed.

Sheila S. Coronel is director of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. She writes about global investigative reporting at http://watchdog-watcher.com.