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China tames former internet regulator ‘tiger’ over corruption charges

Lu Wei, the former head of China’s powerful internet regulator, is under investigation for suspected corruption, the country’s ruling Communist Party has announced.

Lu has been accused of serious discipline breaches, accusations levelled at him by the Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI). He is the latest senior offical to be embroiled in controversy as the wide-ranging campaign against corruption continues to finger former high-ranking operatives.

In a statement on its website, the CCDI described Lu as being the first “tiger” – or senior official – to be tamed over corruption charges since the 19th Communist Party Congress, held in October 2017.

The CCDI alleges that under Lu, the cyberspace administration did not carry out President Xi Jinping’s instructions in a timely or resolute fashion.

“The improper use of power occurred on occasion and the safeguarding of political security was not strong enough,” it said, although specific details of the allegations were notably absent.

While in charge as the country’s chief regulator of net access and internet freedom, Lu was perceived as being a figurehead for China’s increasingly pervasive internet controls. He was a strong advocate for the government’s oppressive internet policies, declaring in 2016 that it wanted the Communist Party to become the “strongest voice in cyberspace”.

Lu was also unapologetic about taking this atitude into the international arena and staunchly defended the ‘Great Firewall of China’. In 2014, the organisers of China's first World Internet Conference, set up under Lu’s authority to promote Beijing’s vision of internet governance, required foreign technology firms to agree to a last-minute declaration on China’s “internet sovereignty”.

While tech industry representatives ultimatley declined to sign the pledge, the conference request was widely interpreted and condemned as an explicit attempt to undermine internet freedom.

Meanwhile, Lu accused the US of hacking Chinese websites, claiming that 80 per cent of its government websites had been attacked, with most assaults launched from the US.

In 2015, Lu told reporters, “Indeed, we do not welcome those that make money off China, occupy China’s market, even as they slander China’s people. These kinds of websites I definitely will not allow in my house.”

Overseas technology companies keen to do business in China and take commercial advantage of the vast market potential were required to engage with the Cyberspace Administration of China and hoped to sweet talk its head man into easing the strict regulation and blanket bans in place.

According to a Chinese government website, when Lu visited Facebook’s US campus in 2014, Mark Zuckerberg greeted Lu in Mandarin, hoping to impress on a personal level and open the door to favourable negotiations for Facebook. Facebook is still blocked in China, as are Google, Twitter and YouTube, on the grounds that their content could challenge Communist Party rule and threaten stability.

However, despite Lu’s current reversal of fortune, initiated in June 2016 when he was replaced as head of the internet regulator, as well as the loss of his other posts, there is unlikely to be any softening of China’s internet control policies already in place which have, in fact, been tightened further under Lu’s successor Xu Lin.

President Xi Jinping has carried out a sustained campaign to weed out deep-rooted corruption since he first took office five years ago. Hundreds of thousands of officials have already been punished and removed from office.

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