China replaces its internet czar. Will its policies change, too?

China's top censor and cybersecurity czar was known as an outspoken advocate of China's Internet policies.

Reuters/File
Lu Wei speaks at the closing ceremony of the second annual World Internet Conference in Wuzhen town of Jiaxing, Zhejiang province, China, in December 2015. China has announced it will replace Mr. Lu China who has been serving as its top internet regulator and censor.

China will replace its top Internet regulator and censor Lu Wei, who had become the face of the government during its negotiations with foreign technology companies.

Mr. Lu will be replaced at the post by his deputy, Xu Lin, reported state news agency Xinhua on Wednesday.

As the official responsible for implementing the government's Internet policies, Lu was known for his outspoken defense of what China calls its principle of "internet sovereignty," by which every nation can decide how their citizens' access to online information can be controlled. In accordance with that principle, cyberspace is no different from physical territory in terms of the rights of nation-states. And the United States' promotion of open access to the internet, in this view, amounts to a veiled exercise in imperialism.

The departure of Lu, one of the Communist Party's rising stars and an ambitious ally of President Xi Jinping, had been rumored for months and is not expected to alter the broad direction of China's internet policy, reports the Associated Press. Xinhua did not mention a new post for Lu, who will keep his concurrent position as deputy head of the party's propaganda department. He could be in line to lead the department or take over a provincial post, according to political analysts and speculation in Chinese media.

"Lu's most important achievement was that he took a government that was scared of the internet and changed it into a government that was very much in control of the internet," Rogier Creemers, a China scholar at the University of Oxford, told the AP. "From the Chinese policy perspective, it was very innovative, very effective. He's won, and the political cauldron that was Weibo is gone."

In the January cover story for The Christian Science Monitor, "Why China hacks the world," Adam Segel wrote that Lu had started out at Xinhua's provincial branches and ascended quickly through the ranks, becoming head of the State Internet Information Office in April 2013. Lu, reports Segel, was a gregarious "ideological warrior and propagandist … known as both a workaholic and a showman":

Lu's work and thinking are essential to understanding China's approach to the Web. From the moment Chinese users first went online a little more than two decades ago, policymakers have conceived of the Internet as a double-edged sword, essential to economic growth and good governance but also a major threat to domestic stability and regime legitimacy. Economic development has been a priority: China’s first Internet white paper, published in 2010, described the network's 'irreplaceable role in accelerating the development of the national economy.' "

Under Lu's direction in recent years, China had taken some tentative steps in the direction toward what's known as a "multi-stakeholder" approach to regulating the internet. In 2015, the Monitor noted that Lu had joined the governing body of Netmundial, a forum based on Western principles of access. And Chinese organizations had stepped up their participation in ICANN, the nonprofit that manages IP addresses globally.

Those hints of greater engagement may reflect the tremendous complexities of balancing tight restrictions over access with Western technology companies' eagerness to penetrate Chinese markets.

As the Monitor noted in March, Facebook chief executive officer, Mark Zuckerberg has been at the forefront of the tech world in seeking to build links with Chinese officials.

"Since China shut down Facebook and Twitter in 2009, blaming social media for unrest in the western Xinjiang region just a year after the Chinese site launched, Zuckerberg has been less than subtle with his efforts to win over officials; the prize of China's 650 million Internet users, twice the size of the entire US population, is hard to ignore," reported the Monitor.

Other companies have taken a similar approach in ingratiating themselves with China's government. In April, Twitter drew criticism from online activists for its decision to appoint as its first regional chief a former member of the Chinese military who reportedly has close ties to intelligence services.

Material from the Associate Press was used in this report.

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