Fall of China’s Former Internet Censor Highlights Frustrations Over Controls

The former face of China’s “Great Firewall,” Lu Wei, has become the first “tiger” to come under the Communist Party’s corruption investigation since President Xi Jinping began his second term last month.

Analysts say the graft probe into Lu’s corruption practices is widely believed to be legitimate and long overdue.

But Lu’s downfall has highlighted the simmering discontent among the country’s netizens, many of whom have been frustrated with tougher internet regulations imposed by him.

It has also made a mockery of so-called Xi Praise, a flattery culture centering on the building of the Xi cult, analysts add.

​Graft probe

Late Tuesday, China’s top anti-corruption agency announced on its website that 57-year-old Lu, who formerly served as deputy chief of the party propaganda department, has been detained in an internal graft probe.

Along with six of his colleagues and family members, Lu was reportedly taken away by investigators late last week.

Lu, who served as the head of China’s cyberspace administration between 2013 and 2016, was the key person in implementing Xi’s cyberspace policies.

In that role, he wielded great power over what the country’s 730 million internet users could access and acted as the gatekeeper for foreign technology companies seeking to enter the Chinese market.

Because of that, Time magazine named him one of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2015.

​Just a cat

But his political career ended when he was stripped of the title as China’s internet censor and was replaced by Xu Lin, a Xi protégé, in June 2016.

“Actually, he ceased to be a tiger long ago. He’s not a fly, but he’s now just a cat instead of a tiger because he already lost his power in June 2016,” Hong Kong-based China watcher Willy Lam told VOA.

In one of its two other statements, China’s anti-graft body Wednesday explained why Lu became the first tiger under graft investigation after the party’s 19th National Congress.

The cyberspace administration with Lu at the helm was found to have not been staunch enough in executing Xi’s instructions, lacked political responsibility and integrity while being operated by a network of small circles, the statement said.

‘Offenses of bygone’

The other statement warned not to “expect [criminal] offenses of bygone will be bygone today, lessons learned from the fall of Lu Wei.”

No details about Lu’s corruption offenses were revealed.

Chinese media reported that investigators would be mainly looking into corruption charges against Lu during the period when he worked for state-run Xinhua News Agency from 1991 and 2011.

Media speculation is also rife that Lu had angered Xi when the top leader discovered that the former internet censor had hired foreigners to masquerade as CEOs of multinational tech companies attending the World Internet Conference held in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province, in 2014.

​Xi praise

But Lam said that Xi, who he said is a “macromania,” has no one but himself to blame for the trend of Xi Praise, a flattery culture in Chinese politics.

“This is the art of survival in the Chinese empire, so to speak. The officials have to be seen as bending forward and backward to please Xi Jinping,” Lam said.

But Li Datong, managing director of Freezing Point, a weekly that reported on all aspects of contemporary life in China, said Xi Praise is an act of self-deception.

“If Xi Jinping knows how to surf on the Internet, he will see from a bevy of [online] chat rooms that many [netizens] not only made fun of him, but also lashed out at Xi Cult. It’s a game for government officials themselves to play,” Li said.

Discontent with internet controls

Chinese internet users, however, are happy to see Lu go, venting their frustrations over Internet controls.

But on Wednesday, a report in the state-run Global Times pointed out, “while news of Lu’s removal has made a buzz on the internet, his corruption investigation isn’t aimed at addressing dissatisfaction expressed by a minority of people over tighter internet controls. Neither is it a signal that internet controls will be re-evaluated as some have expected.”

Li said netizens are aware of the fact that the country’s internet controls won’t be eased following Lu’s downfall.

“Everybody knows that there won’t be a change of policy. But they are still happy to see the executioner [Lu], who has done all evils, being taken down. [Internet] policies are national policies, which won’t be easily revised as a result of personnel reshuffle,” Li said.

On Thursday, Lu Wei was the top-trending topic on freeweibo.com, a website that captures censored social media posts. On SINA Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform, online comments posted by users in response to news reports were mostly erased.

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