China has charged the country’s former internet czar and top censor with bribery, capping a dramatic fall from the heights of political power.
Lu Wei “accepted a large number of bribes” during his time as national propaganda chief, head of the Cyberspace Administration of China, deputy head of the official Xinhua news agency, and as a Beijing city official, according to state media.
The charges come after Lu was expelled from the Communist Party and dismissed from public office in February, which followed a sudden fall from favor in mid 2016, when he left his position at the Cyberspace Administration.
At that time, some speculated Lu was destined for even higher office, such was his perceived connection to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who consistently promoted Lu during earlier periods in his career.
But it soon became apparent the censor had fallen from favor, and an official corruption investigation was announced just weeks before the opening of the 2017 World Internet Conference, a gathering of China’s top government officials and industry leaders seen as his brainchild.
Rise to the top
Short and stocky, with a wide smile and larger-than-life presence, Lu, who was born in 1960, started his climb through the ranks of China’s propaganda and censorship apparatus at Xinhua, which he joined as a regional correspondent in the 1990s.
By 2001, he was the news agency’s secretary general, and would become its vice president within three years. According to some reports, he was an ally of former Premier Wen Jiabao and responsible in part for crafting his man-of-the-people “Grandpa Wen” image.
Leaked US state department cables from his time as Xinhua showed Lu arguing aggressively for Chinese “sovereignty” on media issues, something he would expand on as Xi’s internet tzar.
After a brief stint overseeing propaganda and publicity for the Beijing government, Lu joined the state council in 2013 and later the newly created Cyberspace Administration of China.
In these roles, he oversaw a crackdown on Weibo, the Chinese Twitter-like platform, reigning in powerful thought leaders and celebrities known as the “Big Vs” for their “verified” status.
In a meeting with several leading commentators, Lu laid out “seven bottom lines,” including upholding socialist ideals, for Weibo posters to follow. Those who refused, or later overstepped, were banned from the platform or even faced criminal prosecution.
Lu took a similarly strident line with foreign internet companies, despite the best efforts of tech billionaires like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to court him.
Under Xi and Lu, China has advanced the “doctrine of cyberspace sovereignty,” a dramatic reimagining of how the internet works, which would see the global, open internet turned into an overlapping collection of national internets, each with their own rules and tightly policed borders.
This approach has attracted considerable support from other autocratic regimes. China’s top tech firms have gone on to sell foreign governments the tools for building their own firewalls, and top officials provided expertise.
Fall from power
While much of what happens within the world of elite Chinese politics is a black box to those on the outside, what is clear is that Lu fell out of grace with Xi, potentially because he had built up a separate powerbase and was seen to be preparing for a future succession battle, when and if Xi himself steps down.
In a withering broadside against Lu following his expulsion, the Party’s corruption watchdog said Lu “did whatever he wanted, commenting on central government policies with bias and distortion, obstructing central government investigations, with his growing ambition he used public tools for personal interests and did whatever it took for personal fame.”
Though a trial date has yet to be set, given China’s almost 100% conviction rate, it is practically certain Lu faces years in prison, a dramatic shift from his days schmoozing in Silicon Valley.
The downfall of the country’s top censor has not changed internet policies in China however. Xu Lin, a close ally of Xi’s who took over as Cyberspace Administration head, has continued his predecessor’s hardline approach.
As well as continuing censorship at home, China has also begun exporting some of its controls, demanding airlines and hotel websites conform to Chinese policies on how to describe de facto independent Taiwan, or face economic repercussions.