The fall of Lu Wei, first commander of the Cyberspace Administration of China

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Lu Wei 鲁炜 began his career as a Party enforcer at the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region branch of Xinhua News Agency in Nanning City. He rose through the ranks of the state media apparatus to become the deputy director of the Party’s publicity (née propaganda) department, and most famously, the head of the Cyberspace Administration of China, the most powerful regulator of China’s internet.

Now he has fallen:

  • The Party’s anti-corruption watchdog, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), has charged (in Chinese) Lu with serious violation of discipline, including tyrannical and shameless behavior, wild ambition in the pursuit of personal fame, deceiving the Party, accepting huge bribes, and trading power for sex. Lu’s Party membership has been cancelled.

  • It’s a rather extraordinary attack on the character of a recently high-flying official. The respected Beijing-based historian and commentator Zhang Lifan 章立凡 told the South China Morning Post: “The wording…was harsher than before. It is very unusual. Previously, such [CCDI] statements would detail specific offenses… He might have done something to deceive the top leadership, leading to their great fury.”

  • Here is a video of a news announcer reading out the charges against him on the evening news program broadcast by CCTV and carried by dozens of provincial TV channels.

  • Also today: “Chinese prosecutors have charged disgraced senior politician Sun Zhengcai 孙政才 with bribery,” reports Reuters. A former Party boss of the megacity of Chongqing, Sun was placed under investigation in July last year, and is one of the most senior officials to have fallen in Xi Jinping’s years-long anti-corruption campaign.  

  • Former vice governor of Shandong Province Ji Xiangqi 季缃绮 has also been kicked out for “severe disciplinary violations,” according to CCDI (in Chinese).

Further thoughts on the fall of Lu Wei

Lu Wei first came to national and international prominence after the 18th Party Congress in 2012, when Xi Jinping took over leadership of the Party and state. In 2013, he became the deputy director of the Information Office of the State Council, a government and Party organization responsible for propaganda directed at foreign countries. The Information Office itself had an Internet Office, which Lu led.

In May 2014, Lu became the director of the Central Leading Small Group for Internet Security and Informationization, a powerful Party group of which Xi Jinping is a member (see Alice Miller for more on Central Leading Small Groups). Enjoying his new powers, Lu rebranded the Internet Office of the State Council with an unusually colorful name for a Chinese government department, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), and launched a new website.

In November 2014, under Lu’s swaggering leadership, the first Wuzhen World Internet Conference was hastily organized. There were dozens of international attendees, but very few big names from the global internet industry. And attendees at the first Wuzhen Summit woke up on the final morning to find a draft joint statement, which they were encouraged to sign, affirming China’s concept of “internet sovereignty,” the Chinese government notion that the internet should be regulated — and censored — by national governments. But from that ham-fisted beginning, the Chinese government has created an annual event that focuses the minds of American internet executives, if no one else: In November 2017, we covered the conference with a story headlined Global internet leaders kiss the ring in Wuzhen.

Mark Zuckerberg did not attend the first Wuzhen Conference, but in December 2014, Lu Wei visited the Facebook campus in Palo Alto, where he took smiling photos with the company’s founder, who proudly showed off a copy of Xi Jinping’s book on his desk. In 2015, Lu stayed in the limelight, attending events like International Children’s Day celebrations (in Chinese) to talk about cleaning up the internet, and publishing enthusiastic defenses of China’s censorship policies in foreign media outlets.

But in June 2016, Lu Wei unexpectedly lost his job at the helm of the Cyberspace Administration. Lu reappeared in a reduced official role three months later, but in November 2017, news of his investigation on suspicion of corruption was announced. And today, the ax has fallen: His career is over.

What does Lu’s fall mean?

  • First, he was almost certainly corrupt: When he was still heading up the Cyberspace Administration, I heard stories from three different Chinese journalists about Lu’s days at Xinhua News Agency — he was known for taking gag money (封口费 fēngkǒu fèi) from government officials and companies to ensure that bad news about them did not appear. I can’t vouch for the truth of those rumors, but there certainly was a lot of smoke.

  • Second, Lu’s self-promotional style and swagger likely did not endear him to his fellow apparatchiks, nor to Xi Jinping — after all, there can be only one Core.

  • Third, Lu is gone, but some of his work endures. The Wuzhen Conference has become an event attended by Silicon Valley CEOs, and where once Chinese officials made half-hearted defenses of censorship, they now have a new, nationalist-based confidence epitomized by the phrase “internet sovereignty.”

—Jeremy Goldkorn, Editor-in-Chief