Ali Baba’s cave and Pandora’s box

The New York Times noted last week that China’s internet czar, Lu Wei (鲁炜), was “taking a blunt tone” on the issue of foreign entry into China’s internet market. When Lu Wei — the man who reportedly led the crackdown on the “Big V” Weibo account holders last year — was asked at an October 30 press conference why sites like Facebook (which is blocked in China) had been “shut down,” he responded with a homespun metaphor:

Your websites are in your home. How can I shut down shut down sites in your home? . . . China has always been warm and hospitable, but I have a choice about who comes to be a guest at my home. I can say that, I have no way of changing you, but I have a right to choose my friends. I hope all those who come to China are friends, true friends.

Lu Wei’s bluntness and “new swagger,” a personal style he has evinced ever since he became chief of the State Internet Information Office (SIIO) in April 2013, seem to reflect a new confidence in China’s attitude not just toward domestic internet controls, but toward global internet development and governance. Lu may in fact be the bold new face of an information control regime centered in the CCP’s Internet Security and Informatization Leading Group (中共中央网络安全和信息化领导小组), created in February this year by President Xi Jinping.

Lu Wei2
[ABOVE: Lu Wei, China’s new top internet official, favors the more direct assertion of the CCP’s approach to information control over the dry Marxist discourse traditionally deployed by propaganda officials.]

Perhaps more significant than his position as head of SIIO is his position as director of the General Office of the Internet Security and Informatization Leading Group, which according to Xinhua News Agency is “designed to lead and coordinate Internet security work” as well as “draft national strategies, development plans and major policies.”

As the overarching information objectives of the CCP leadership (control/development/security) center not on the traditional media system — which in recent years has been quite effectively muzzled in China — but rather on vast, dispersed and global internet-based new media, it is time to ask: is the Central Propaganda Department being marginalized in favor of a new, rebalanced system of information controls under Xi Jinping?

If this is the case, then Lu Wei is the chief disciple of this important shift.

Lu Wei (鲁炜) was born in January 1960 in Chaohu (巢湖), a prefectural-level city in Anhui province. After receiving his master’s degree in journalism from Guangxi University, Lu served for a time as a teacher, and later as the secretary in charge with propaganda work at a factory. He was later editor-in-chief of Guangxi Legal Daily (广西法制报), chief of the Guilin bureau of Xinhua News Agency (1993-1994), and chief of the Guangxi bureau of Xinhua (1997-2001). In May 2004, he was promoted deputy director of Xinhua News Agency, a position he held (with many concurrent roles) until March 2011.

Overseas Chinese-language media have reported widely that Lu Wei was the man largely responsible for the press image and relations of former Premier Wen Jiabao, and that Lu’s appointment as propaganda minister of the Beijing municipality in March 2011 was the outcome of negotiations between Wen Jiabao and then propaganda chief Li Changchun (李长春).

As Beijing’s municipal propaganda minister in January 2013, shortly before he became head of SIIO, Lu Wei openly revealed — in a report by The Beijing News that was echoed across Hong Kong media — that employees within the city’s propaganda system (体制内) numbered more than 60,000, and employees doing the same work outside the official hire system (体制外) totaled more than 2 million. All of these workers, said Lu, were responsible for “strengthening positive channeling (正面引导) of hot-button issues,” and they should actively make use of new media. They must, he said, “watch Weibo, open up their own Weibo accounts, make Weibo posts and research Weibo.” The ultimate goal of this work, said Lu Wei, was to spread “positive energy,” or zheng nengliang (正能量) on the internet.

In consonance with President Xi Jinping’s appeal for a more down-to-earth style, Lu Wei hammers his points home with aphoristic aplomb. Unpack Lu’s recent press conference remarks, spoken with no-nonsense logic, and you’re left with several core assertions, a bag of tricks:

* The “home,” or homeland, of China belongs to the Chinese Communist Party, which as the Confucian “father” is duty bound to protect his children (who of course have a vested interest in obeying the father).
* The Chinese “home” observes core values that are different from those of other nation-homes. China respects these differences and demands respect in return.
* China’s “true friends,” those who respect and abide by China’s domestic political values, are welcome as “guests” in the Chinese home. And that means they are free to conduct business.

There are a number of points to note here, not least the seeming abandonment of Communist Party ideology. The argument for information control is not — overtly, at least — about “guidance of public opinion,” “a civilized web” or “socialist core values.” Control is fundamentally about protecting the nation-home and its continued prosperity.

In Lu Wei’s aphoristic crushing machine, control is also freedom. In September 2013, shortly after the chilling arrest of Charles Xue, a Chinese-American investor and “Big V” on Weibo, Lu Wei said that “freedom means order” and that “freedom without order does not exist.”

Here again we have an elementary assertion of fact that subsumes other core assertions.

* “Order” is the foundation of “freedom”
* By ensuring “order” on China’s internet, the CCP (via the SIIO and the Internet Security and Informatization Leading Group) is safeguarding the “freedom” of China’s connected masses.
* Any online acts that threaten the “order” of the internet are an assault on the security and freedom of all Chinese

Last week’s your-home-my-home metaphor notwithstanding, Lu Wei understands that it is not enough to assert control over information and establish “order” at home. This is why China wants to exert greater influence over global internet developments.

Last week’s press conference was about China’s hosting of the World Internet Conference from November 19-21. The event, we are told, will be the “largest and most high-level internet conference China has ever hosted.”

Listing out what he said were the four firsts of the World Internet Conference, Lu Wei said this was, first and foremost, the first time China had hosted an internet-related event on this scale. “As the largest developing nation, with the world’s largest online population, China has one-fifth of the world’s internet users,” said Lu. “It stands to reason that an open platform should be created for the world that is broadly representative.”

China, in other words, wants the influence over global internet-related decision making that its sheer size warrants — and it hopes the World Internet Conference can become the platform through which it wields that influence.

More than 1,000 politicians and business leaders would attend the conference, said Lu — a second “first” — and they would rub shoulders with representatives from Chinese internet giants like Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu. Like an Olympic-style coming-out party for China’s internet industry, the conference would mark the first time — a third “first” — China could offer a “panoramic view of its internet development concepts and achievements.”

Here too, Lu Wei emphasized China’s sheer size. After twenty years of development China now had 630 million internet users, 1.2 billion mobile phone users, and 500 million users of Weibo and WeChat. And China had four of the world’s top-ten internet companies. “China has already become a veritable internet great nation,” Lu said.

Lu Wei’s fourth “first” may seem less consequential: This is the first time a world internet conference will be held in a 1,000 year-old town. In honor of the host town, Wuzhen, Lu Wei has suggested the conference be nicknamed the “Wuzhen Summit.” But hosting a global internet conference in an ancient canal town suits rather well Xi Jinping’s “sage king” aura, combining present-day Party authoritarianism with an exceptionalist notion of Chinese cultural continuity.

In Wuzhen, said Lu, “the most state-of-the-art fruits of world civilisation and the oldest Chinese culture can merge and interact, and modern information culture and historical cultures and traditions can shine together.”

At the conference, said People’s Daily Online, China would be able to “fully explain the development concepts of the Chinese internet.” As control of the internet has been one of China’s most core development concepts since the beginning, Lu Wei will no doubt be eager to “fully explain” China’s approach to internet governance.

In a speech at the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Summer Davos in Tianjin back in September, Lu Wei explained China’s view on global internet governance with characteristic bluntness: “Freedom and order are twin sisters, and they must live together,” he said. “The same principle applies to security. So we must have a public order [internationally]. And this public order cannot impact any particular local order.”

Contradicting last week’s remarks to the foreign reporter about “your home,” Lu Wei’s language suggested the ruling Chinese Communist Party wants a global internet governance system that respects “local” internet controls.

To make his point about the super-design of the global internet clear, Lu Wei employed another down-to-earth analogy, this time a technological one. The internet is like a car, he said.

If it has no brakes, it doesn’t matter how fast the car is capable of traveling, once it gets on the highway you can imagine what the end result will be. And so, no matter how advanced, all cars must have brakes.

What does it mean to design a global internet “with brakes”? For Lu Wei it means prosperity for all — a “brighter future,” as he said last week.

To simplify the choice ostensibly facing the entire world as it discusses the future of the internet (at the “Wuzhen Summit”), Lu Wei marshaled another of his favorite analogies. Global internet chiefs and politicians must come together to ensure that “the internet becomes Ali Baba’s treasure cave for humankind, and not Pandora’s box.”

A controlled internet — with a built-in “brake system” — offers the promise of riches to all. The alternative is not freedom but pandemonium. That, anyhow, is the stark information worldview presented by China’s internet czar, a man whose Midas touch turns propaganda into proverb.

There is no doubt that the promise of China’s internet market looms large. And for those who wish to enter, the magic word is “control.”

But how can we be sure that Ali Baba’s cave of treasure isn’t in fact Pandora’s box?


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