A news report indicating that "disappeared" popular Chinese news anchor Rui Chenggang was sentenced to six years' imprisonment for taking bribes has been deleted soon after being posted, prompting renewed speculation about his fate.
Rui, a massively influential state journalist who had more than 10 million social media followers, was handed a six-year jail term by a court in Jiaohe city in the northeastern province of Jilin after being found guilty of bribery, the Zhimian news service said via its social media account.
Rui is scheduled for release from prison on Dec. 11, 2020, the report said, citing court documents.
However, the tweet, which follows a similar unconfirmed report last November, was quickly deleted by censors.
In July 2014, China's powerful propaganda department issued a directive banning news organizations from "hyping up" coverage of Rui's detention after he was detained ahead of his show's airing, leaving his co-host sitting next to an empty chair.
Rui's detention came in spite of his huge popularity and strongly patriotic views, and keyword searches of his name on Chinese social media sites still result in an apology citing "relevant laws and regulations."
Tweets and comments on the Zhimian report were soon deleted along with the report, suggesting the government is still not ready to break its official silence on Rui's whereabouts.
Links to other cases
Veteran journalist Zhu Xinxin said Rui's case is likely linked to other corruption cases still being probed by the Communist Party's disciplinary arm, and the government is keen to minimize public discussion of the case.
"Bringing up Rui Chenggang will turn people's attention to many other corruption scandals within the Chinese Communist Party," Zhu said.
"Also, as a popular media personality, Rui represents the official media and a specific interest group," he said. "They don't want to see public discussion and concern, which would be quite natural given that he is such a high-profile presenter."
Before the fall of jailed former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, Rui, 39, had frequently boasted of his close friendship with Bo's son Bo Guagua, making him a ripe target for President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign, observers have told RFA.
He is also believed to have close ties to the wife of Ling Jihua, a former ally of former president Hu Jintao currently serving a life sentence for corruption.
Rui joined state broadcaster CCTV in 2003, before being seconded to the financial news channel's international team in 2008.
He came to global attention during his interviews of world leaders including former U.S. President Barack Obama and British prime minister Tony Blair.
Beijing journalist Xu Xiang said the report of Rui's six-year jail term seemed plausible.
"I'm not surprised or shocked to hear that Rui Chenggang got a six-year jail sentence," Xu told RFA. "Rui Chenggang went far beyond the remit of what journalists are expected to do."
"We don't care whether he had an affair with Ling Jihua's wife or not; neither do we care what connections he had among high-ranking officials," he said.
"But he had long ago left behind any notion of journalistic ethics; he had become a political figure."
President Xi has launched a nationwide anti-graft crackdown, targeting high-ranking "tigers" and low-ranking "flies," since coming to power in November 2012.
But the party regards any popular discussion of the anti-corruption campaign as highly sensitive and potentially threatening, and has sentenced a number of activists to jail for calling on officials to reveal their wealth.
Officials with friends in the right places are unlikely to be touched by the crackdown, and reports suggest many are liquidating their assets and making moves overseas, according to political observers.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.