Tea Leaf Nation

Everybody Hates Rui

Chinese netizens rejoice after once-swaggering state news anchor Rui Chenggang gets detained in a corruption probe.

He may be widely reviled in his home country, but oh, what a resume: The son of an author and screenwriter; a graduate of the prestigious China Foreign Affairs University; a Yale World Fellow; and state-run China Central Television (CCTV)'s best-known bilingual business anchorman. Notwithstanding all this, Rui Chenggang was hauled in for questioning by government authorities, probably as part of a corruption investigation, just before his prime-time business program Economic News was scheduled to go live on July 11. Rui's account on Weibo, China's popular microblogging platform, has not been updated since July 10, and he has made no public appearance since. (People's Daily, the Chinese Communist Party's official newspaper, wrote on Twitter on July 14 that Rui held shares in Pegasus, a company majority owned by PR firm Edelman's Beijing subsidiary, and that Pegasus was providing services to CCTV.) 

Chinese netizens may know who Rui is -- he has over 10 million Weibo followers -- but that doesn't mean they like him. In fact, on Weibo, China's closest approximation of a public square, many have cheered Rui's recent misfortune. Lin Jun, a manager of a textiles company in the eastern city of Ningbo, commented that the reason Rui is so unpopular among netizens is that he willingly acts as a "banner holder" and a "mouthpiece" of the party. "As a public intellectual, Rui knows that democracy is better than autocracy, but acts against his conscience for dirty money," remarked Luo Yameng, an urban planning expert in Beijing. "This is his reward for selling his soul!" Renowned Chinese economist Wang Fuzhong did not bother to hide his contempt for Rui: "He's caught glimpse of a few world leaders and thought he has become one of them." 

Before his arrest at the age of 36, Rui combined the ways of the Western jet-set with dyed-in-the-wool Chinese nationalism. He had conducted one-on-one interviews with countless business moguls and political leaders around the world, including President Bill Clinton, Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman, and South Korean President Park Geun-Hye, to name a few. He speaks excellent English, and reportedly wears Zegna suits and drives a Jaguar. But Rui is also determinedly nationalistic. In a January 2007 blog post, he called the Starbucks outlet in Beijing's Forbidden City "a vehicle and token for American low-class food culture" and an invasion by Western culture into China's national symbol, and the resulting uproar ended with the U.S.-based chain closing that location. At the World Economic Forum's annual meeting at Davos, Switzerland in September 2011, Rui provocatively asked Gary Locke, then U.S. Ambassador to China, whether flying economy class to China was "a reminder that the U.S. still owes China money." The antics seemed excessively confrontational to many Westerners as well as many Chinese -- scholar Yang Hengjun said Rui was "acting like he knows what he's talking about when he has no idea" -- but they have doubtless raised Rui's profile.

Given the recent disdain heaped on this known nationalist, Chinese state media were quick to argue that Rui's corruption charges bore no relation to his ostensible patriotism. On its Weibo account, party mouthpiece People's Daily insisted that "the only criteria for conviction" in Rui's case "are truth and law... it has nothing to do with patriotism." Another party-controlled newspaper, the nationalist Global Times, wrote, "As to the fact that Rui used to have a patriotic halo, and that some used his downfall to attack patriotism, this is merely a media bubble." One Twitter user who frequently commented on Chinese politics tweeted in Chinese that "people feel good seeing high-profile, fawning, pretentious people taken down." 

Perhaps the single most quoted phrase to comment on Rui is "sophisticated egoist," a term famously used by Peking University professor Qian Liqun in 2012 to describe students at Peking University in Beijing, China's highly selective flagship university. Many find this phrase, which means people who are smart, worldly, good at acting and leveraging the institutional rules for their personal agendas, applicable to Rui. On Zhihu, a major Chinese question-and-answer site, the most popular answer to the question "Why Do So Many People Hate Rui Chenggang?" is that he represents established elites without sympathy for others, who "fawn over the powerful and bully the weak." Many think Rui is opportunistic, and too smart for his own good, even calling him the Julien Sorel of China, the protagonist in the French novel Le Rouge et Le Noir (or, The Red and the Black) who climbs the social ladder with immense ambition, willpower and resourcefulness, yet ultimately endures rejection by Parisian high society and is sentenced to death.

Some think it's unfair to blame everything on Rui alone, seeking instead institutional reasons to explain his recent disgrace. Another Chinese reporter asked her colleagues in a July 13 post on web portal Tencent Finance, "If you were in Rui's place, wouldn't you also become a mouthpiece and fall all over the rich and powerful?" In a July 14 blog post, scholar Yang Zao commented that "the corrosion of power and temptation of prestige have been traps since the beginning of time." Another Weibo user asked, "Doesn't our society's definition of success idolize people like Rui, who have decent IQ and appearances and seize every opportunity to climb up the ladder? One Rui Chenggang fell, but millions of newcomers will still look up to him." Meanwhile, Rui's online supporters number at least 7,000, united as they are under the roof of Rui's Fan Hut on Weibo. But they appear outnumbered by Rui's detractors.

The young anchor's seeming downfall came suddenly, but Rui's own conception of his public personality seems to have underscored the fragility of his reputation. His profile on People's Daily says his favorite book is The Great Gatsby, a tale of soaring but ruined ambition, while a June 2012 profile by liberal magazine Southern Weekly reports that at a young age, Rui memorized these lines from Shakespeare's comedy As You Like It: "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." If Rui was but a player, however prominent, that means he was vulnerable to the whims of his directors. On July 11, they may have finally decided it was time for the brash personality to get yanked from the limelight.

AFP/Getty Images

Tea Leaf Nation

Another Chinese Website Bites the Dust

Crowdsourced translation site Cenci gets "erased from the planet."

When then-22-year-old Kang Xia founded the Cenci Journalism Project in 2011, he called it cenci -- meaning "diversity" in Chinese -- because he liked this quote by the British philosopher Bertrand Russell: "Diversity is essential to happiness, and in Utopia there is hardly any. This is a defect of all planned social systems."

Over the next three years, Kang built his nonprofit monument to diversity into a respected niche website, delivering Chinese translations of articles in more than 14 languages sourced from around the web. Pieces came from ProPublica, the New Yorker, Asahi Shimbun, Oil of Russia magazine, and Le Figaro. The slogan: "Reporting another dimension of the world." Cenci is part of a wave of independent citizen journalism that has sprung up in China in recent years with help from the Internet and social media platforms such as WeChat and Sina Weibo. The Chinese government, which heavily censors all official news media and doesn't tolerate much independent reporting, regularly cracks down on these mushrooming news outlets. But many flourish before they fall. By March 2014, Cenci had about 400 volunteer translators who provided content, free of charge, and had attracted some 140,000 subscribers.

Then on July 14, down came the hammer. Cenci's accounts were deleted across Chinese social media platforms, including Sina Weibo, Tencent's WeChat, and film and literature criticism site Douban. On July 15, the icenci.com website, which is hosted overseas, was blocked in China. Cenci, for all intents and purposes, was dead. For Kang, 25, a former Bloomberg Businessweek reporter now studying for his graduate school examination, it was a devastating blow. He posted a grieving essay online that was widely shared and doggedly deleted by censors. (A copy of the essay, saved as an image to make it harder for censors to find it with a keyword search, can still be found online.)

In the piece, Kang described how Chinese search engine Baidu no longer even delivered links to various media interviews he'd done. "All of this was cleanly erased from the planet; it was as if I never existed," he wrote. Sitting at home in his apartment in Beijing, Kang said he was stunned. "I don't want to eat, don't want to cry, don't want to speak."

Cenci's 28-year-old executive editor, Yang Chu, told Foreign Policy via email that she cried after reading Kang's obituary and messages from friends and volunteers. She wrote in her email: "I feel pretty calm now. Profoundly powerless, however. I feel guilty that there is nothing I can do to protect Cenci." Yang said it isn't yet clear why authorities targeted the project or whether there was any specific content that triggered the action. "We haven't officially heard anything," said Yang, a former reporter for Caijing, one of China's leading financial news magazines. She said she and Kang heard only that China's Internet surveillance department requested that Sina Weibo, WeChat, Douban, and others shut down the Cenci service. "But we don't know who gave them the order." Yang said she suspects that the government wasn't happy with how the site was generated by hundreds of people spread out across China and, in some cases, the globe. That was potentially unmanageable for authorities, who have shown themselves to be very jumpy at the Internet's power to unite netizens across provincial boundaries.

Cenci's content was sometimes lightly provocative, but not overtly daring. In May, it published a Chinese version of an article from the Atlantic about Associated Press reporter Edward Kennedy's decision to break a military-mandated embargo on news that Germany had surrendered in 1945. His action infuriated U.S. wartime censors and his fellow journalists, but the crux of the story, which probably rang bells in the minds of many Chinese readers, was this line: "What, exactly, does the public have a right to know? And who gets to decide?"

Kang founded Cenci along with several classmates from Beijing Foreign Studies University. It retained an undergraduate-type enthusiasm but had high digital polish and appears to have been particularly popular among young people. For many Cenci readers and contributors, the site's shuttering was their first personal experience with censorship. One young woman in Xi'an, the capital of the central province of Shaanxi, wrote on her Sina Weibo page in response to news of the site's demise: "Many people say that doing media in China is hard; I didn't feel it before but this time I am sincerely convinced."

A 24-year-old Cenci fan named Selina who works for Baidu in Beijing told FP via a WeChat interview that she found the news deeply upsetting. She described herself as "angry and hurt" that her country "doesn't allow its young people to think freely, doesn't allow young people to spontaneously do something they find meaningful, and responds instead with threats, fear, and coercion." (She asked to be identified only by her chosen English name for fear that speaking out might impact her job.)

For Kang and Yang, the next step is still uncertain. They won't revive Cenci, Yang said. Both are currently planning to get graduate degrees outside China. As for media, they will wait and see whether to re-engage. "In a country where only entertainment and light news could survive, we really don't know what we could do," Yang wrote. "We want to write what we like, but it is so hard."

Photo via Getty Images