Tea Leaf Nation
The Man Who Nailed Jello to the Wall
Westerners said the web could never be controlled. Lu Wei, China's departing internet czar, proved them all wrong.
On March 8, 2000, U.S. President Bill Clinton hailed the arrival of a new era, one in which the internet would mean the triumph of liberty around the world. He dismissed China’s fledgling efforts to restrain online speech. “Good luck,” quipped Clinton. “That’s sort of like trying to nail Jello to the wall.”
More than 16 years later, however, it appears that China has largely succeeded in doing just that. Key to this achievement was Lu Wei, known as China’s internet czar. The charismatic head of the Central Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs, China’s internet regulator, channeled the vision and confidence of strongman President Xi Jinping and, with a barrage of strict new policies aimed at corralling online speech, plugged the holes left by the prior administration’s half-measures, which left social media a flourishing space where government was often criticized. On June 29, state news agency Xinhua confirmed reports that Lu would be stepping down, an unexpected move. It’s unclear what prompted the move, or what’s next for Lu. But his legacy, and China’s unprecedented system of internet controls, are unlikely to fade.
China has committed massive resources and ingenuity to filtering online content. Censorship began in the 1990s with the introduction of early forms of the internet, and picked up slowly in the 2000s, as China began to block foreign social media sites, slowly what came to be known as the Great Firewall of censorship. But it was the 2011 Arab Spring, a wave of pro-democracy protests that gained support and organized via social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, that seemed to alert Chinese authorities to the existential threat the internet posed to authoritarian governments. After assuming China’s presidency in late 2012, Xi seemed determined to realize the ruling Communist Party’s declared vision of the internet: one whose liberalizing streak could be stifled without squelching its economic usefulness.
Lu was the man Xi chose for that task. Lu soon set out to dismantle the three bulwarks of the internet’s power: anonymity, virality, and impunity. China already required internet service providers and mobile companies to hand over user information at government request. In a country without significant privacy protections and no institutions capable of meaningfully restraining authority, the main challenge was technocratic. Under Lu’s watch, the space for anonymous online posting shrank as the government introduced new requirements for internet users to register online accounts with their real names and phone numbers, making it easy for security officials to locate the author of individual posts.
Preventing the rapid spread of information authorities deemed sensitive or dangerous required monumental effort. During Lu’s tenure as head of Cyberspace Affairs, China often contracted out the work of censorship to internet companies themselves. Chinese authorities issued censorship guidelines, then threatened to shut companies down if they did not comply. Chinese companies hired small armies of censors to flag, remove, and report sensitive comments in real time. Foreign websites that did not abide by the official guidelines were blocked.
But the knockout punch was combining the defeat of anonymity and the advent of mass web filtering to topple the third fortress — the sense of impunity that allows web users sitting behind their computers to speak more boldly than they otherwise would. In 2013, China launched a war against what it called online rumors, arresting several celebrity bloggers and shaming them on national television. It was, to use a Chinese phrase, “killing the chicken to scare the monkey” — making an example to threaten others. Many users began to vigorously self-censor, unclear of where the line was drawn but afraid of accidentally crossing it.
“The effect was felt immediately,” a former employee of Sina Weibo’s censorship department said in a March interview with the Committee to Protect Journalists. “The amount of original posting dropped rapidly. Users not only withdrew from serious commentary, but became reluctant to post about what they heard or saw in their daily lives.” The strategy proved effective long-term. “Now,” concluded the former censor, the government “rules Weibo with ease.”
The attack on user impunity has only deepened. In 2015, Beijing announced that it would embed cybersecurity police directly into the country’s largest tech firms, streamlining the process and the time between the flagging of questionable content to the moment when men in uniform arrived at the web user’s home address. By August 2015, Chinese police had arrested 15,000 people for internet crimes.
Perhaps Lu’s greatest personal contribution to the evolution of the modern internet was his role as evangelist for China’s approach. He wasn’t just the technocratic architect of a system of controls; he also served as a vocal international advocate for the ideological and practical superiority of such a system. He proudly championed the idea of “internet sovereignty,” the idea that the internet, like territory, has borders which each nation is entitled to monitor and defend. It’s an idea that is gaining steady appeal around the globe, particularly among authoritarian regimes. Iran, Russia, Turkey, Thailand, and Zimbabwe are now looking to China as they consider their own national version of the Great Firewall.
Western observers have been slow to comprehend what China’s leaders first grasped — that the internet, like traditional media, can be controlled. Clinton’s Jello comment grew out of the post-Soviet optimism of the 1990s, which led to rosy predictions that democracy’s global triumph was nigh. The internet blossomed amid this flush of ideological triumph. Now that all seems naive.
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr