Sudden Departure, Unclear Destination for Cyberczar

The New York Times’ Jane Perlez and Paul Mozur report on the sudden replacement of Lu Wei, who has led the tightening of internet controls in China over the past three years.

Mr. Lu’s public appearances and travels made him stand out at home in a political scene dominated by muted bureaucrats. His frequent flamboyance also made him controversial. Since he was put in charge of the government internet information department in 2013, rumors about his fall from power have occasionally swirled, even amid what other observers pointed to as signs that he was a rising star.

[…] Mr. Lu will hand over his position as head of the Cyberspace Administration to its deputy director, , who worked directly under Mr. Xi when the president was made the Shanghai party secretary in 2007 after a corruption scandal. A number of officials who worked with Mr. Xi during his seven months in Shanghai have been promoted in recent years.

[…] If his new appointment undoubtedly makes Mr. Xu a figure to watch, Mr. Lu’s fate is less clear. Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the fact that Mr. Lu had retained his title as the deputy head of China’s propaganda department meant it was not clear whether his departure from the Cyberspace Administration was a demotion.

“It’s too early to draw the conclusion that he’s out,” Mr. Lam said.

“He might end up getting a promotion in another area of the bureaucracy,” he said. “It’s not uncommon for these important positions to be moved around frequently.” [Source]

His rapid removal from the CAC’s Chinese website might offer a hint:

At China US Focus, Oxford University and China Copyright and Media’s Rogier Creemers argued that given the lack of recent rumors or signs of isolation, as well as his continued foreign travel, Lu’s downfall seems unlikely. (Rumors did circulate last summer, but soon faded.)

In comparison, another scenario is much more likely: Lu Wei is being promoted. He is clearly a man of some ambition, and the CAC has allowed him to notch up a highly impressive track record. However, there are quite strict Party norms that delineate the path to the top of Chinese politics. One essential requirement is that a candidate for Standing Committee membership needs to have either been in charge of a province or an important political body.

In Lu Wei’s case, both options are plausible. Over the past few months, rumors circulated that Lu Wei would take charge of the Zhejiang province. This would be quite symbolic, given it is also the place where Xi Jinping started his ascent, as well as practical: due to the World Internet Conference being held there, he already has strong relationships with local government departments there. Certainly, as Caijing suggests, there are ample precedents where propaganda officials took over provincial positions. Current (CPD) director , for instance, served as Party Secretary of Guangxi and Sichuan.

The other option is that, as SCMP reported initially, Lu is going to focus much more on propaganda work, and remain a vice-director of the CPD. Over the past years, even as the CAC grew from strength to strength, the CPD’s relevance to media has languished. It had proven unable to stem the tide of social media and online voices, which led to the CAC’s establishment in the first place. Nevertheless, it remains important symbolically, as a prominent Party body with a long history, as well as through its oversight of education, culture and ideology. Under this scenario, Liu Qibao would, like his two predecessors, be moved up to the Standing Committee at the 19th Party Congress. This would pave the way for Lu, who would have five years to revitalize the CPD. [Source]

The Central Propaganda Department was recently inspected by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, which declared earlier this month that it had uncovered a variety of serious failings. Lu may have been directed to focus on leading the rectification.

Looking back over his last job, and borrowing Bill Clinton’s phrase on the supposed futility of fighting free speech online, Foreign Policy’s Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian described Lu Wei as “the man who nailed Jello to the wall”:

[…] Lu soon set out to dismantle the three bulwarks of the internet’s power: anonymity, virality, and impunity. China already required internet service providers and mobile companies to hand over user information at government request. In a country without significant privacy protections and no institutions capable of meaningfully restraining authority, the main challenge was technocratic. Under Lu’s watch, the space for anonymous online posting shrank as the government introduced new requirements for internet users to register online accounts with their real names and phone numbers, making it easy for security officials to locate the author of individual posts.

Preventing the rapid spread of information authorities deemed sensitive or dangerous required monumental effort. During Lu’s tenure as head of Cyberspace Affairs, China often contracted out the work of censorship to internet companies themselves. Chinese authorities issued censorship guidelines, then threatened to shut companies down if they did not comply. Chinese companies hired small armies of censors to flag, remove, and report sensitive comments in real time. Foreign websites that did not abide by the official guidelines were blocked.

But the knockout punch was combining the defeat of anonymity and the advent of mass web filtering to topple the third fortress — the sense of impunity that allows web users sitting behind their computers to speak more boldly than they otherwise would. In 2013, China launched a war against what it called online rumors, arresting several celebrity bloggers and shaming them on national television. It was, to use a Chinese phrase, “killing the chicken to scare the monkey” — making an example to threaten others. Many users began to vigorously self-censor, unclear of where the line was drawn but afraid of accidentally crossing it. [Source]

Lu’s often colorful pronouncements often drew attention. In 2013, as vice mayor of Beijing, he claimed that “the entire city’s propaganda team includes 60,000 people in the system and over two million outside of the system.” Weibo searches for “2 million outside of the system” were subsequently blocked. The following year, he declared that the internet “must have brakes” and that “freedom and order are twin sisters, and they must live together,” adding that China could not allow foreign tech companies “taking advantage of China’s market, [and] profiting from Chinese money, but doing damage to China.”

That October, he described China as “the world’s main victim of cyber hacking,” and gave a perhaps deliberately obtuse answer to a reporter who asked why sites like Facebook had been shut down. “We have never shut down any foreign sites. Your website is on your home soil. How can I go over to your home and shut it down?” A leaked censorship directive ordered the closure of comments on related reports. Similar measures followed his argument late last year that “if we really censor the Internet, how come our Internet user population and their reliance on the Internet keep growing?”

Last summer, he laid out four rules for being “Good Netizens,” and listed 25 vulgarities that they should not post. Visiting the U.S. in December, he advocated “win-win cooperation instead of zero-sum games” and “deep fusion and high mutual stakes.” Promoting his signature vision of internet sovereignty in Moscow in April, though, he warned of a Western media “information war” against China and Russia, and cautioned that “unlimited freedom can lead to terrorism.”

China Media Project’s David Bandurski, meanwhile, focused on Lu’s successor. Introducing a translation of a 2007 21st Century Business Herald story “which helps to establish Xu Lin’s connection to Xi Jinping” in a post at Medium, he wrote:

So far, little is known about Xu Lin, but he is rumoured to be a trusted associate of Xi Jinping, having first worked with him directly for several months when Xi was Party secretary of Shanghai. Xu Lin became a member of Shanghai’s Party committee in May 2007, just two months after Xi Jinping’s arrival from Zhejiang. Xu, then just 44 years old, was dubbed a “political star” (政治明星) in a page-one story in the 21st Century Business Herald.

[…] It is not yet clear how Xu Lin will fit into Xi Jinping’s overall strategy for the internet and information in China. The Mingjing News reported hopefully today that “people anticipate that this personnel adjustment will bring a ray of light for internet development in China.”

However, those tempted to wish on a “political star” might turn to Xu Lin’s speech in November last year, in which he urged journalists to “adhere to correct guidance of public opinion, energetically propagate socialist core values, strengthen the [Party’s] mainstream voice and win their campaigns in the online public opinion struggle.” [Source]