By Clay Chandler
February 17, 2018

We learned more this week about the downfall of Lu Wei, China’s once-mighty Internet czar—or at least we learned new details about the Chinese Communist Party’s official case against him. On Tuesday, China’s state-run media reported that party leaders have formally accused Lu, former director of the nation’s top Internet regulator, of a litany of crimes including pocketing huge bribes, violating party rules by visiting private clubs, trading power for sex, being “power-hungry” and deceiving investigators.

Lu was abruptly dismissed from his job as cyber czar last June. In November, the party announced that he was under investigation on suspicion of “serious violations of discipline.” He hasn’t been seen in public for many months. The tone of this week’s indictment was unusually severe. In a statement, the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection said Lu had “lost all his ideals and beliefs” and “forgotten the Party spirit and disciplines.” The commission denounced him as “shameless” and “tyrannical,” a “two-faced person” with a “swollen head” and a “rough and domineering style,” who “expanded his power by fair means and foul.” The commission also noted that Lu has been expelled from the party. In other words: his goose is well-and-truly cooked.

It’s a stunning fall from grace for a man who made TIME’s Most Influential People list in 2015 and was seen, until recently, as a close ally of Xi Jinping. Lu began his career as Party representative at Xinhua News Agency in the southern city of Nanning. By 2011, he had risen to become a vice mayor of Beijing. In 2013, he was promoted to deputy director at the State Council Information Office (SCIO), which reports directly to China’s highest administrative body. The following year he was appointed a director of the government’s Central Leading Small Group for Internet Security and Informationization, a body that included Xi himself, and named deputy director of the party’s Propaganda Department. At SCIO, Lu assumed control of a relatively small entity called the Internet Office, which he rebranded with a grander appellation, the Cyberspace Administration of China, and sought to establish as the party’s main agency for asserting control over China’s burgeoning Internet industry.

Lu was brash and combative, and cut a high profile, both in China and Silicon Valley. He was the driving force behind the World Internet Conference, an annual state-sponsored tech gathering hosted in the picturesque Chinese river town of Wuzhen. The first conference, held in 2014, touted an alternative Chinese vision for the Internet. In contrast to the utopian notions of the Internet’s American creators, who saw the new medium as a democratizing element that would empower individuals and transcend national borders, Lu and his colleagues advanced the concept of “Internet sovereignty.” The Internet, he argued, is not a universal human right, but merely a technology, potentially beneficial but also possibly dangerous, and something for the leaders of each nation to regulate as they see fit. China’s leaders, he made clear, saw that technology’s main purpose as bolstering political stability and the legitimacy of the ruling party.

In the years since, China’s regulation of the Internet has grown ever more repressive. Beijing has cracked down on bloggers, tightened censorship rules, banned the use of virtual private networks and last year forbade foreign technology firms operating in China from exporting China data to overseas servers. Lu dismissed suggestions China was engaged in censorship. “It is a misuse of words if you say ‘content censorship,'” he said. “But no censorship does not mean there is no management. The Chinese government learned how to manage the Internet from Western countries, we have not learned enough yet.”

China’s tech titans, including Alibaba’s Jack Ma and Tencent’s Pony Ma, recognized immediately that, for them, attendance at Lu’s conference wasn’t optional. US tech leaders snubbed the meeting at first, dismissing it as a propaganda exercise aimed at whitewashing their exclusion from China’s market and Beijing’s vision of a techno-police state.

These days, though, American tech companies are fending off propaganda charges themselves. In the wake of allegations that Russian troll farms, possibly with encouragement from Vladimir Putin, used Facebook, Google and Twitter to manipulate the outcome of the US presidential election, Lu’s call for “Internet sovereignty” seems almost prescient.

And as China’s market continues to grow, US resistance to Lu’s vision seems is giving way to pragmatism. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg courted Lu assiduously. Never mind that Facebook has been blocked in China for years. Weeks after the first Wuzhen conference, Zuckerberg famously welcomed Lu to his company’s campus in Menlo Park, greeted him in Mandarin, and invited Lu to pose for photos at his own desk—where Zuckerberg conspicuously displayed a copy of Xi’s book, The Governance of China.

Last year both Tim Cook of Apple and Sundar Pichai of Google made the pilgrimage to Wuzhen and delivered speeches. In an interview with Fortune‘s Adam Lashinsky at the Fortune Global Forum in Guangzhou, Cook defended his participation in the Chinese conference. “From my American mindset, I believe strongly in freedoms. They are at the core of what being an American is, and I have no confusion on that,” he said. “But I also know that every country in the world decides their laws and regulations.” That leaves companies like Apple with a stark choice, Cook argued: engage or sit on their hands. Cook said he chose to “get in the arena because nothing ever changes from the sidelines.”

Lu has been unceremoniously removed from that arena. But in his absence, the rules of competition he helped champion seem certain to remain.

More China news below.


Clay Chandler


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