The ruling Chinese Communist Party is investigating its former deputy propaganda czar on suspicion of "disciplinary violations," a term generally used to mean corruption, official media reported.
Lu Wei, once dubbed the "father" of the Great Firewall of government internet censorship, is being investigated by the party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), state news agency Xinhua reported.
Several of Lu's associates and colleagues at the powerful Cyberspace Administration, which he headed until June 2016, have also been taken into custody by CCDI investigators for questioning, Caixin news service cited sources close to the investigation as saying.
Lu, 57, was last seen in public on Oct. 24, on a Shaanxi-TV prime-time news bulletin, lauding President Xi Jinping’s "vision," Caixin reported.
Lu was greeted in Mandarin by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg during a December 2014 trip to the United States, during which he also told Apple's Tim Cook that Beijing would decide whether to allow products to enter the Chinese market.
Guangdong-based rights activist Wang Aizhong said Lu's detention likely had more to do with Lu's political stance than any other factor.
"In common parlance, we would say that [Lu] wasn't left-wing enough," Wang said. "It's very interesting, because there has been growing suppression of online speech via the internet and social media in the past few years."
"And yet, to look at the official media, you'd think Lu Wei hadn't done enough," he said. "That should give you some idea of the huge political will that exists in China to crack down on freedom of expression online."
Little difference seen
Lu's detention will likely make little difference to China's ever-tightening grip on what its more than 730 million internet users can do, see, or say online, said online activist Wang Fazhan.
"They are really slamming on the brakes on what people can say online, mostly by deleting posts and tweets and shutting down accounts," Wang Fazhan said. "It think it is much worse than before."
"Some tweets, you can't even send in the first place, or if you do, nobody can see them," he said. "Their monitoring technology is getting more and more advanced."
China was the year’s worst abuser of internet freedom for the third year running in 2017, according to an annual report from U.S.-based freedom-of-speech watchdog Freedom House.
As the ruling Chinese Communist Party held its 19th Party Congress, enshrining the "new era" ideology of President Xi Jinping into its founding document, the government began enshrining many of its previously ad hoc censorship and surveillance strategies in law.
Other new restrictions targeted citizen journalism, and several sought to prevent websites from republishing “unverified” news from social media, while websites not licensed by the government are now banned from providing any online news or information service at all, the report highlighted.
Meanwhile, a draconian cybersecurity law passed in November 2016 forced large numbers of internet users to register for services with their real names, in preparation for a personalized "social credit"
scoring system that could link people's online behavior to their access to jobs and services.
Lu's detention came as censors removed internet telephony app Skype from download stores, with Apple saying it had removed certain apps at Beijing's request.
Skype is no longer available to Chinese users for download as an Android or an iOS app.
"We have been notified by the Ministry of Public Security that a number of VoIP (voice over internet protocol) apps do not comply with local law, therefore these apps have been removed from the App Store in China," Apple said in a statement reported by Agence France-Presse (AFP).
"These apps remain available in all other markets where they do business," it said, but gave no details of which laws had been violated.
China is gearing up to host its fourth World Internet Conference next month, an event during which Lu Wei once floated the concept of online "sovereignty," whereby individual nation states have different rules and regulations regarding online content and conduct.
Lu, a former Xinhua journalist and Beijing city government propaganda official, also presided over the active recruitment of some 10 million online web opinion-makers, known colloquially as the 50-cent army, to post pro-government articles, videos, and tweets.
The Communist Party's Youth League said it planned to recruit four million pro-government commentators from universities, to "promote socialist core values and counter anti-socialism remarks and commentary through criticism, boycotts, and reports to the authorities," reports said at the time.
Lu publicly called on China's youth to become "staunch defenders of internet sovereignty," they said.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.