China’s feared “internet czar” Lu Wei is unexpectedly stepping down

Lu Wei.
Lu Wei.
Image: Reuters/stringer
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One of China’s most influential, controversial officials, who led the country’s toughest crackdown on free speech in years, is unexpectedly leaving his post.

Lu Wei has departed from his position as head of the Cyberspace Administration of China, Xinhua said on Chinese social media (link in Chinese) this afternoon. Lu “will no longer serve as the director” of the Central Leading Group for Internet Security and Informatization, the news organization said.

Widely known as China’s “internet czar,” Lu was one of the leading figures behind China’s efforts to police the internet within its borders, and beyond. Under Lu, foreign companies including Microsoft, Qualcomm, and Apple faced new regulatory hurdles in China and new demands to submit their products to security checks. Local and foreign media were sharply punished for carrying information critical about the Chinese government or economy, and Lu pushed for Chinese controls on the internet overseas.

Before Lu joined the agency in 2013 from the Beijing mayor’s office, blogging platform Sina Weibo was a hotbed for discussion about scandals involving government officials. The service became the go-to destination for news about a train crash in Wenzhou that killed 40 passengers and exposed the deep corruption embedded in the nation’s political and business elite.

Lu orchestrated a massive crackdown on what citizens could say online, crushing hopes that social media platforms could be regularly used to effect change in the authoritarian state.

Lu epitomized China’s new attitude toward controlling speech and the internet under Xi Jinping, according to David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong.

“He could come across as personal and off-the-cuff when delivering China’s stern message on internet control and market accessibility, and in a sense he became the poster boy for an entirely new Chinese posture toward internet control—unapologetic and even proselytizing,” he said. “He essentially said, ‘Yes, China controls its internet, and so should you.'”

Policing Weibo and social media was a pillar of his policy. Not long after assuming office, authorities jailed Charles Xue, a prominent venture capitalist who had frequently criticized the party, and arrested various bloggers. Prominent Weibo users, known as “Big V’s,” were invited to “drink tea” with officials—code for receiving stern warnings or threats.

Lu also introduced or revised a series of laws that have been used to justify China’s continued crackdown on free speech online, and the businesses that facilitate it. He will be replaced by Xu Lin, his current deputy, but will continue in his role as deputy head of China’s propaganda department.

There has been no official explanation for Lu’s departure.

Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper in Hong Kong, reported today (link in Chinese) that Lu is currently under investigation by the Central Discipline Committee, in relation to the Ling Jihua corruption case. Last month, Ling, an aide to former president Hu Jintao, was charged with taking bribes and abuse of power. It’s possible that Lu’s departure is tied to infighting common among elite party members.

Rogier Creemers, who researches Chinese media law and policy at the University of Oxford, suggests the opposite. He believes Lu is on the fast track to promotion, from his concurrent position as deputy head of the Central Propaganda Department to director of the Central Propaganda Department, and later to the Standing Committee—the most powerful body in the state.

“We all know that Lu Wei is a very ambitious politician, and it would be reasonable to assume that he has his eye on membership of the Standing Committee,” he tells Quartz. A transition from deputy head of the Central Propaganda Department director would make a natural transition, as “there’s a clear precedent for Central Propaganda Department head to move to the Standing Committee.”

Tom Tsui contributed reporting.