In the past three years, Lu Wei became the public face of China’s internet censorship. The founding director of the Cyberspace Administration of China worked towards perfecting information control. His ultimate goal was to make censorship unnecessary by discouraging undesirable Content.
Cyberspace has always presented the CCP with a difficult challenge: How can the Party tame the internet without jeopardising the economic opportunities of the digital age? To address this Herculean task, President Xi Jinping decided in late 2013 to set up the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), and he appointed the propaganda expert Lu Wei as its boss. By the time Lu was replaced by his first deputy Xu Lin on 29th June 2016, he had already redefined the framework of information control in China. Today, China’s cyberspace is less free, less spontaneous and less tolerant of dissent.
Lu Wei recognised the empowering potential of modern information and communication technologies early on. He understood how they enable ordinary citizens to put out ideas that could transcend borders and boundaries, infect hundreds of thousands, even millions of people, and, potentially, spur them into action. For a loyal servant of a political system that equates the stability of its hold on power with national security, the spectre of mass mobilisation must be horrifying. Thus, Party devotees like Lu view information control not as an infringement on the freedoms of the Chinese people, but as an indispensable guarantor of national security. Without it the virtual world would descend into chaos and this chaos would spill over into the real world.
Self-censorship and outsourced censorship
Lu Wei knew that no bureaucratic machine can ever control the digital output of China’s 700 million netizens. Thus, the bulk of the CAC’s work under his leadership focused on two aspects: increasing self-censorship and strengthening the existing system of outsourced censorship.
First, a string of new rules and provisions hollowed out one of the defining principles of cyberspace discourse: anonymity. If netizens are forced to provide their real names on online platforms, they become more cautious with what they write and share. The task of ensuring that real-name regulations were enforced was then relegated to the providers of online platforms. Lu and his team toughened this system by making websites and app developers liable for the digital output of their users.
Lu Wei was also in charge of building up a network of local cyberspace administrations at the provincial and municipal level to monitor the censorship activities of those online platform providers. The responsibility of disciplining website and app developers who neglect their censorship duties lies with them.
Defining the media narrative
Yet censorship – however efficient – is only one aspect of information control. The other aspect is propaganda. The aim of censorship is to weed out undesired information. The purpose of propaganda is to define the narrative. In the long run, effective propaganda is a more reliable tool of information control. Lu Wei – who spent a good part of his career working at the Xinhua News Agency – knew that.
But he also recognised that China’s propaganda was hopelessly outdated. Xinhua’s shrill language turns off readers, especially the young. Therefore, Lu championed a new approach to propaganda, which is exemplified by publications like The Paper (www.thepaper.cn) and its English-language sister publication Sixth Tone (www.sixth-tone.com). These online magazines have a lighter tone and content than traditional Party-state media. And they have become very popular.
Ultimately, it was Western criticism of China’s censorship system that really let Lu Wei’s passion shine through. He did not only take a confrontational approach towards his critics. Rather, as became apparent in a spat with an American journalist, he also questioned their right to criticise. By championing the principle of cyber sovereignty (网络主权), Lu insisted that each country has the right to regulate “its” Internet the way it chooses. Countries should be sovereign over their physical space as well as cyberspace, he argued. Lu was a welcome guest in like-minded countries, such as Russia and Iran, where he advised his hosts on the art of digital information control.
During his time at the CAC, Lu Wei laid down the foundation for an agile and adaptive information control machine. His protégé and successor Xu Lin is bound to continue the hardline policies of his Mentor.