Davos Diary: The Strange Case of a Missing Chinese Journalist
Does Davos miss one of Its biggest Chinese stars, ensnared in a corruption probe?
At Davos in Jan. 2014, the celebrity Chinese journalist Rui Chenggang participated in a panel on the global “state of trust across government, media and financial institutions.” He told me about colleagues of his getting investigated for unspecified crimes at Chinese Central Television (CCTV), the state broadcaster where he was a star anchor. Perhaps he knew he was in trouble. Four months later, he was arrested, presumably for financial impropriety as part of the massive anti-corruption campaign sweeping China: he hasn’t been heard from since.
The 37-year-old Rui was one of the most recognized Chinese faces at Davos, and probably the best-known celebrity caught up in the massive crackdown that Chinese President Xi Jinping instituted not long after coming to power in Nov. 2012. A regular at World Economic Forum (WEF) events — he reportedly attended nearly every year since the early 1990s — he made a name for himself both for his confidence and his bluster. In a regional WEF meeting in 2011, he mocked then U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke in fluent English. “I hear you flew here coach,” he said. “Is that a reminder that the U.S. owes China money?”
Rui’s absence from this year’s session “is of course surprising,” someone familiar with the World Economic Forum’s work in China, who would only speak about Rui anonymously, told me. “It’s not something you’d expect, or that somebody tells you is going to happen,” he added.
It’s unclear exactly which crimes Rui is being punished for. Shortly after his arrest, the WEF removed his profile from their website. In a post on LinkedIn, the forum’s communications director Adrian Monck wrote that among other accusations, Rui “co-owned a PR firm [affiliated with the PR giant Edelman] that took money from the companies he was supposed to report on.” At least 8 staff of CCTV have been detained since Jan. 2014. In Dec. 2014 the ruling Chinese Communist Party formally placed former security tsar Zhou Yongkang under arrest; his wife, the former CCTV Television host Jia Xiaoye, is also presumably detained as well.
It’s unknown if Rui has any connections with Zhou or his wife. The rumors instead are that he’s somehow connected to the wife of Ling Jihua, a former top advisor to ex-President Hu Jintao. In December, Beijing accused Ling of “disciplinary violations” — i.e., corruption — for which he will almost certainly be convicted. “Now the story is that it has to do with his relationship with Ling’s wife, and with them making money together,” a Chinese academic told me. A Chinese journalist, who also asked to speak on background, concurred. “It’s rumored that he had something to do with Ling’s wife, but we don’t know, those are just rumors.”
Rui has more than 11 million followers on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, where he was celebrated for his eloquent defense of China internationally. “He was of course popular among journalists in China,” the Chinese journalist told me. “But his absence isn’t noticed here.” Also, Rui’s disappearance provoked an outpouring of Schadenfreude in China among more liberal Chinese, some of whom saw him just as a “mouthpiece” for the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
In Davos, the mood among Chinese I spoke with seems more one of resignation – that Rui is gone, and that, sadly, changes nothing. “In China we don’t have media freedom,” a Chinese CEO, who asked to speak anonymously, told me. “So it’s not like media personalities are irreplaceable” – even ones with as a big of a presence of Rui. “It’s a face and a voice,” the CEO added. “When he’s gone, you can always replace him.”
ERIC PIERMONT/AFP/Getty Images