Thursday, 30 June 2016

Stumbled, Shoved or Just Too Soft? What Happened to China’s Internet Czar Lu Wei


The announcement wasn’t at the top of the political news here, but unlike so many postings in much of Chinese social media in the past few years it went viral very quickly:  “Comrade Lu Wei will no longer serve as the Director of the General Office of the Central Leading Group in charge of network security and information technology.” [鲁炜同志不再担任中央网络安全和信息化领导小组办公室主任职务.]

Until yesterday, Lu Wei ran China’s Internet. Apart from a few years helping to manage the terribly-managed Beijing municipality, Lu’s career had been as an administrator and sometime editor at Xinhua.

Two decades ago, there was little to indicate that Lu Wei would be China’s social media czar. At that time, Lu was in charge of superintending news coverage in Nanning, the capital of Guangxi province. Then, after less than a decade doing that job, he was suddenly helicoptered to Beijing. Lu’s promotion to Beijing’s inner circles was probably due to the fact that he wasn’t a major political striver from a large city, but someone from far and away, who came to the attention of visiting dignitaries by the way he made sure that reports of deeply entrenched political corruption in Guangxi were relayed to officials but not part of the regular local news cycle. It also didn't hurt Lu’s career that he reportedly organized a special news team to trumpet then-Premier Wen Jiabao’s efforts to reach out to the poor and downtrodden there and elsewhere in China—or at least got credit for doing so.

Lu’s overall job in Nanning was to regulate what was reported, and he did so with a clear zest for control then, and since—on the one hand, insisting that control of the Internet was China’s sovereign right and on the other, seeking to export China’s model of social media management to other countries.


Lu Wei is one of those cadres who many foreigners find impressively urbane, and mistake for one of the faces of The Newest Version Of New China. He wasn’t one of the faces so much as the force—the fulcrum really—by which the current leadership seeks to supervise society by looking to supplant dynamism with stability. Lu didn't attain his position and his power because he was open to the outside; he achieved influence and authority because his vision of a tightly-controlled cyberspace was what Beijing believes to be the best way to run China’s post-modern state. He mastered his masters’ voice.

Much of the follow-up reporting has speculated about why Lu Wei is no longer in charge of China’s Internet.

Some think that Lu Wei was pushed out because the agencies he managed may have been riddled with corruption; the Central Committee’s Discipline Inspection Commission recently concluded an inspection tour that, among other targets, investigated some of the departments that Lu oversaw. Government bureaus that have something to do with media—presenting the Party line, placing statements in cyberspace, regulating resistance to what Beijing wants--has long been a place where at least the scent of sleaze lingers. That’s not to assume that Lu succumbed; only that he had already been rebuked for not doing the best job delivering Xi’s message, and perhaps the Commission’s report showed Lu as better at deleting posts than promoting the Party and expunging corruption at the same time.

The fact that the announcement of Lu’s removal occurred on the very eve of the 95th anniversary of the founding of China’s Communist party is also noteworthy. His exit is major news, and signals dissatisfaction at a moment when there should be back-slapping.  

Others have wondered if Lu’s departure heralds a change of policy by President Xi Jinping, to something of a less draconian oversight of the media. From what we know about Lu's successor, that's unlikely. Indeed, given Xi’s attitude on such matters, Chinese society can expect to see more control of social media in the coming months, leaving some of Lu’s would-be mates still stuck running in circles.

But how Lu Wei’s departure plays out locally will be very interesting to watch. Even in Beijing, he wasn’t universally popular: one of the new offices of Party’s flagship newspaper People’s Daily was said to have had a whiteboard with a picture of Lu on it that some used to toss magnetic darts at. (True or not, the tale speaks loudly as to how some in the state media resented Lu’s oversight.)

Likewise, some local officials weren’t pleased with the autonomy that Lu and his allies erased where their own oversight of the Internet was concerned. The political recentralization that has been the hallmark of the Xi leadership hasn’t sat well with provinces and cities looking to tackle unemployment through innovation and other start-up initiatives. Policies that compel potential foreign investors to look outside of China’s provinces because their best hope of a reliable Internet connection is a VPN through Bulgaria also don’t help localities that look for new ways of economic growth. At least one middle-ranking cadre in Jiangsu was stunned to find after an official trip abroad that other nations’ regulation of cyberspace was almost nonexistent compared to China’s. He’s probably more hopeful today than he might have been the day before yesterday--and he and his like-minded comrades surely must have made their unhappiness known in the past months.

The circumstances that led to Lu Wei’s exit aren’t clear in these early days. Some local governments will see Lu’s removal as a temporary victory that they hope will lead to less supervision of cyberspace, but the central leadership may well be hoping for even more oversight. That disconnect at least doesn’t seem to be going away.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

The Rain Isn’t Allowed To Flow Mainly To The Plains

Jiangsu expects more rainfall and possibly violent weather again this week, and the central government is responding in much the same way it has for other provinces already hit by extensive flooding.

It’s sending money.

According to a report in today’s edition of People’s Daily, Jiangsu will receive 160 million RMB in disaster relief. 30 million RMB is allocated as relief for lost agricultural production in the province, with another 30 million RMB to subsidize measures taken to deal with flooding and the loss of water supplies that’s been creating here.

But the remaining 100 million RMB is earmarked as living allowances and housing reconstruction for those displaced by the cyclone [龙卷风] that struck Yancheng.

That’s because Beijing’s current focus is on helping those affected by the storms that hit Yancheng. The account in People’s Daily--the Communist party’s flagship newspaper after all--devoted a full half-page of coverage to the recovery effort—a clear signal to officials and bureaucrats that the central government is not only dedicated to assisting, it’s also keen to direct the narrative, taking credit from on-high.


For example, the Ministry of Civil Affairs has already sent “1,000 tents, 2,000 folding beds, 10 sets of site lighting and other central relief reserve materials have all arrived in the disaster area”. The Ministry of Agriculture has also formed a steering group to “guide the local agricultural sector, improve agricultural production and disaster recovery”.

In other words, this will be Beijing’s story to tell—a tale of help and heroism from the top, of assistance without which Jiangsu and its residents would apparently be lost. Put more starkly, the flooding that’s sure to swell in Jiangsu in the coming days has taken second place to the short-term relief of Yancheng and other towns hit by the cyclone.

Meanwhile, local officials in the various hills that ring Nanjing proper are confronting their own problems.

Before this month's heavy rains, precipitation and runoff was largely diverted to Nanjing. The major reason for that pushing that water to Nanjing is because townships and local officials answer to Nanjing: They’ve been incorporated into the city administration zone in recent years, and their autonomy undercut. When local authorities wanted to hold on to water, they pretty much had to ask permission.

Moreover, as farming communities on Nanjing’s outskirts are increasingly displaced by housing projects, government officials see little reason to retain water for local irrigation—water that was instead used in the city for commercial industries and newly-built communities. What water Nanjing doesn’t use gets dumped into the Yangtze River. Aqueducts that had been providing water for area farms outside Nanjing and that had been a common feature of the local countryside aren’t being maintained; in some cases, they’ve been dismantled to make way for new buildings, especially spas and private clubs built over the mountain springs to the east of Nanjing. In those townships, it’s been rare to see water remaining very long before it was sent downhill and downstream to downtown.

But not now apparently.


At least some of Nanjing’s adjoining eastern townships seem to be under a new directive to hold whatever water they have until further notice. It’s very probable that’s occurring because Nanjing may soon be under a flood threat. But whether those instructions are coming from Nanjing itself, Jiangsu, or the central government is not clear. The command would be an internal one, for restricted circulation within various official departments and bureaus, so it’s difficult to be certain. And there wouldn’t be a campaign to get residents to contribute, because the political system works by acclamation, not participation. So there’s no public announcement by which to confirm.

Still, what seems to be happening here is this: While the results of earlier rains outside Nanjing ended up being quickly pushed down the hills, at least for the present moment, the water isn’t being allowed to go anywhere. Indeed, local dam gates have been closed to trap water flowing from higher elevations. It's not a lot of water yet, but even a little not going a long way is a problem for local officials.

How long this situation will last isn’t clear, either; but with a forecast for the next 7-10 days of rain and thunderstorms, townships and counties around Nanjing may be hard-pressed to prevent local flooding of their own. And unlike Nanjing, they’re not well-equipped to handle heavy rain because they’ve never had to develop the local facilities or resources to have to do so.


Yancheng needs all the assistance it can get, of course. It’s a tragedy, and its victims require care. But Nanjing’s adjoining townships may not be far behind in wanting more consideration than they’re currently receiving.

Friday, 24 June 2016

The Predictable And The Otherwise


As unexpected as yesterday’s storm that hit the Jiangsu city of Yancheng [] and left at least 98 people dead and hundreds injured there and in surrounding counties, the response thus far from Beijing has been fairly predictable. 

The Chinese central leadership has “issued important instructions” [重要指示], with both President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang directing Jiangsu officials to “protect people's lives and property safety effectively”. China’s State Council has dispatched a special working group from the Ministry of Civil Affairs to coordinate the rescue and recovery efforts. Li himself is reported by China’s state media to have “given instructions to make every effort to search and locate the injured, pay close attention to verify the situation on the ground, and help the affected people resume normal production as soon as possible.”

As if the Jiangsu government and the local authorities in Yancheng needed such guidance, or weren’t doing all that already.

Which, of course, they most certainly are--as accounts from the scene make very clear. As with so many other local disasters in China, firefighters, rescuers, hospital personnel, and volunteers are all pitching in to try to save survivors and secure the area, even as thunderstorms and violent weather threaten to reappear in Yancheng. If there’s anyone “giving important instructions” in Yancheng and counties nearby, it’s residents working to lift collapsed structures and stretchers carrying the injured.

That local courage may not have been immediately apparent to viewers of Chinese Central Television this noon hour, as the news spent over 20 minutes on President Xi Jinping’s presence and speech at the annual Shanghai Cooperation Council meeting in Uzbekistan. Only at the bottom of the hour was the disaster in the Yancheng area spoken of. Jiangsu television, on the other hand, spent the bulk of their news program interviewing local residents and showing scenes in the aftermath of what now appears to have been a cyclone that appeared out of nowhere to devastate the city and its citizens. China's central and China's local were on very different channels.

This tragedy struck at a time when Yancheng is trying to make a future for itself. In earlier dynasties, the city had been the historical center of much of China’s salt industry, but it’s now like so much of Jiangsu’s northern region known as Subei []: a previously poor area sluggishly being refashioned as a high-technology zone. Places in Subei such as Yancheng have benefitted in recent years from online commerce and the willingness of Internet shopping companies to set up warehouse and distribution facilities on farmland that wasn’t very productive anyway. And Yancheng’s local government has been actively promoting a greener city in an effort to make it a more attractive place to live and work.

But rulers and ruled still struggle with situations. Many residents of Subei remain largely unskilled, as the sorts of industries that made Jiangsu affluent in the past 2 decades passed Subei by, and the soil there isn’t well-suited for farmers to get rich either. For years, many Subei residents have long migrated elsewhere in search of work as construction laborers, house movers—taking any job as better than what they left. Many city dwellers in Jiangsu poke fun at people from Subei as uncultured and lazy, incapable of finding their way. But it’s difficult to find anyone here making such statements today.


What is being spoken of, albeit quietly and carefully, is why there was no warning of the high winds that hit Yangcheng and the other counties that were struck, killing so many and laying waste to so much.


According to one published report, as early as June 20th, there were predictions of heavy rainfall in Yancheng in the following days, but that rumors of widespread flooding spread so quickly through the social media platform WeChat that the Yancheng City Meteorological Bureau was besieged by phone calls from residents asking why the official forecast differed so much from what they were reading on their cellphones.

That difference, local officials conceded, produced “a certain degree of anxiety and panic, and disrupted the social order.” Nothing further was mentioned in official media of the potential for violent weather. Chinese weather forecasting has been chastised before for being unprepared to “meet the needs of society”, but it’s Beijing that defines those needs, not local governments. 

Cyclones in Jiangsu are very rare events to start with, but they have happened. At the same time, since May 2015, Chinese law notes that anyone spreading false weather forecasts, or altering meteorological forecasts, which cause “socially adverse reactions”, is subject to criminal investigation. That latter prospect in itself may well have made local meteorologists disinclined to raise even the possibility that strong winds might cause devastation, because they’ve been commanded to value social stability over preparing the public for the possibility of worst-case scenarios.

Still, it’s difficult to see how anyone could prepare for such a devastating event, especially when local governments were recently told to pay close attention to rising water levels, not the possibility of sudden storms. Plus, Chinese officials are not always trusted when they do issue genuine warnings to the general public.


Today continues the rescue and recovery phase in Yangcheng and the areas that adjoin it. It’s not easy to know what to expect from the aftermath of this calamity, but it will be interesting to see which high official from Beijing visits, and who locally—if anyone—is held to blame for a tragedy that may have been incapable of being forecast in the first place.