Chinese Character

Rui’s empty chair

Popular CCTV presenter is detained, derailing a colourful career

Rui Chenggang

Rui: named a Global Leader of Tomorrow at Davos

On news anchor Rui Chenggang’s profile page there is a list of his “unforgettable moments”.

Some are self-congratulatory, such as his pride at receiving The Global Leader for Tomorrow Award at a ceremony in Davos. Other achievements date much further back, such as the day he first walked home from kindergarten by himself.

If Rui gets the chance to update the page he might want to include the events of last Friday. In a moment of drama he was carted away by Chinese prosecutors shortly before he was about to go on air, leaving his show, Economic News, with an empty chair that night and his co-host dumbfounded.

Although Rui has now been replaced on the show, state broadcaster CCTV has said nothing about his abrupt departure. Other media outlets have been less restrained. Initially, it was Century Weekly which came out with its version of events, citing sources at CCTV. The People’s Daily then tweeted the same report and – rather unusually – began to look into Rui’s affairs itself.

By Monday there were two versions of Rui’s alleged misdemeanours.

The first, as advanced by Century Weekly and a few other sources, was that he was detained as part of the ring connected to CCTV2 director Guo Zhenxi, who was accused of “bribe taking” in late May (see WiC241).

As the magazine pointed out, rumours of Rui’s involvement had grown over the past few weeks and the 37 year-old journalist had even addressed them, albeit obliquely, on Sina Weibo: “I asked my teacher how to deal with people who criticise, humiliate, belittle and embarrass me? My teacher replied: ‘You let them. Wait a while, and it will be clear they have nothing.’”

The second interpretation of Rui’s fall, as reported by Tencent and the People’s Daily, is that he used his position at CCTV2 to funnel work to a public relations company called Pegasus, which he had set up in 2002.

Rui then sold his stake in Pegasus to US public relations giant Edelman.

“Pegasus has provided services to CCTV at Davos since 2009, which means a company that Rui held shares in was a supplier to his employer,” an article in Tencent suggested.

(Edelman explained in an email sent to Western media outlets that it was “taking this matter seriously” and continuing to gather facts.)

The allegations have been a blow to Rui’s fans. Since news of his detention emerged, thousands have left messages of support under his last post on weibo.

“Please hurry back,” wrote one crushed viewer.

“Everything will be fine, Rui, we are with you,” was the message of hope penned by another.

Elsewhere on Sina Weibo, people were less upset. “He is an egotist,” warned one critic.

Another wrote: “Ambition like that is always likely to corrupt.”

Rui became a household name in 2007 when he led a campaign to close down a Starbucks outlet in the Forbidden City.

Later in 2010 he earned more public attention by saying that he was speaking on behalf of the whole of Asia at a televised press conference with Barack Obama in Seoul (the US leader had asked if any Korean press had a question; Rui raised his hand and breezily offered his pan-Asian justification for why he should get a go).

The claim annoyed many of China’s neighbours, and indeed many of the journalists present, but Rui’s assertive manner, good looks and fluent English have often played well with audiences back at home.

That’s made his departure into headline news. “Rui’s detention has had no less impact than the sacking of a provincial leader or a ministerial level official,” the Global Times reckoned.

Rui has always been a high-profile personality on Chinese TV. His following is international as well as a domestic, and he counts former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, as well as Richard C Levin, the economist and former president of Yale University, as friends.

Not bad for a boy from Anhui – albeit one who came from creative stock, his parents being a novelist and a dancer.

According to a 2009 New York Times profile, Rui originally wanted to be a diplomat but changed his mind when Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the former secretary general of the United Nations, made a visit to Beijing’s Foreign Affairs University where he was studying in the late 1990s.

Rui asked Boutros-Ghali which nation he would select as a sixth permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Boutros-Ghali retorted “CNN,” joking that the channel’s influence was greater than most countries. Accordingly, Rui decided to become a journalist.

Rui’s proficiency in English stems from his childhood when his father read Shakespeare to him two days a week. The other three working days were spent listening to Tang Dynasty poems.

The same New York Times profile noted that Rui drove a Jaguar and liked to wear Ermenegildo Zegna suits. “His tone on air is serious and scripted. Off air, he sounds like an investment banker who is running for office. He quotes Lao Tzu, makes references to Homer’s Odyssey, explains the pitfalls of private equity and analyses China’s place in the global financial crisis,” the newspaper recounted.

But critics said Rui could be cocky and too nationalistic. For instance, in 2011 he asked the newly arrived US Ambassador Gary Locke if he was travelling in economy class because “America owes China so much money”.

Some have suggested that Rui’s self-confidence might be part of the reason for his departure, reckoning it to be a simple case of him annoying someone senior.

More likely is that his detention is part of President Xi Jinping’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign, which appears to have spread to CCTV early this year after China’s Communist Party started investigating the TV station’s former deputy director Li Dongsheng for “serious law and disciplinary violations”.

Li was vice-minister for public security at the time of his removal and was widely considered as a protégé of Zhou Yongkang, the former Politburo Standing Committee member who is widely thought to be at the centre of many of the ongoing high-level graft investigations.

CCTV’s vice director of financial news, Li Yong was also detained on Saturday and a CCTV2 producer called Tian Liwu was taken away with Guo Zhenxi in May. Three other anchors have also disappeared off the air without explanation during the period.

If Rui has been caught up in what First Legal Daily refers to as CCTV’s “sweeping anti-corruption storm” then he isn’t likely to be back on screens anytime soon.

The Global Times suggested as much when it wrote: “Rui probably thought he was in a grey area where he wouldn’t get punished because others were doing it too. However the anti-corruption drive is unstoppable and it is moving from the black to the grey now.”

A pity, the newpaper went on to say: “Rui was young and promising and he was given good opportunities. Millions of young people in China dream of what he has.”

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