Economy

Censor, censured

China’s former internet tsar is the first catch for new anti-graft boss

Lu-Wei-w

Lu Wei: a cyber fall from grace

The Eighth US-China Internet Industry Forum was very likely the pinnacle of Lu Wei’s career. The veteran politician was head of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) and the event – held at Microsoft’s Redmond conference centre – coincided with President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the United States in September 2015. Lu was the man who decided which American tech boss would have face time with Xi, and he also arranged the all-important photo opp at the end of each meeting.

None of the photocalls was more carefully coordinated than the graduating class-style image of Xi and the heads of America’s top 10 tech firms, plus more than a dozen of their Chinese counterparts.

Lined up in three rows with Xi dead centre in the first tier, the image was dubbed the “$2.5 trillion picture” (see WiC298) in reference to the stock market value the companies then represented.

All the same, Lu made sure all knew that Xi was the alpha male. “After they arrived, the executives cooled their heels for more than 10 minutes, waiting for Xi to finish his tour of Microsoft. It was hard to imagine these execs waiting idly for 10 minutes anywhere else,” the New York Times reported at the time.

“Before Xi was scheduled to arrive, his internet tsar, Lu Wei, entered the room where risers had been set up for the executives. Lu checked where Xi would stand, looked around the room, and left.”

Lu put himself in the front row too between Apple’s Tim Cook and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella.

As head of the CAC, Lu was not only the gatekeeper for foreign internet firms such as Facebook but also in charge of the Great Firewall. That meant he had the final say on what 700 million Chinese internet users could access via their computers and smartphones. He was coy about his influence in cyberspace, once claiming that he didn’t even know that sites like Facebook were out of reach in China because he had never tried to access them himself. All the same, his role led TIME magazine to select him as one of the world’s 100 most influential men.

Lu’s star looked to be solid enough when the 57 year-old was promoted to the role of deputy head of the powerful Propaganda Department. But late last month he joined a long list of influential propagandists (the most infamous being the Gang of Four in the 1970s) to be purged by Party elders.

The news sent shockwaves across the country with Lu becoming the first big catch for Zhao Leji, who has taken over from Wang Qishan as anti-corruption tsar.

Lu “severely polluted the political ecology of the CAC, severely damaged the image of the CAC and its team, severely jeopardised the Party’s efforts for the healthy development of the internet and he is a typical two-faced man”, the statement said, rather crossly.

There are no specifics on the allegations against Lu, although Xi Jinping was believed to be unhappy with some of his work and the CAC was criticised by the anti-corruption agency in April for failing to carry out new directives quickly enough.

The handling of the World Internet Conference, which takes place every year in Zhejiang’s Wuzhen, was said to be another source of irritation. According to Ming Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper, Lu hired foreign students and tourists to attend the gathering just to cook up the impression that a lot of foreign guests had wanted to take part.

Of course, there is no indication that Lu’s downfall will lead to greater freedoms in China’s internet realm in future.

Indeed, the cyberspace police moved quickly to dilute any discussion of his arrest by netizens. “Please close comments on websites, WeChat public accounts, Weibo etc. Find and delete negative comments attacking the system, and so on,” the leaked directive read.


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