Lincoln Davidson is a research associate for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In a surprise announcement at the end of June, Chinese authorities revealed that Lu Wei, China’s top internet regulator since 2013, would be stepping down as head of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC). Stepping up to helm the agency is the former lead vice director of CAC, Xu Lin. Before joining CAC last year, Xu was head of the Shanghai propaganda apparatus, where he was responsible for pushing the Communist Party’s message; this promotion is the next step up that ladder.
Who is Xu Lin?
Xu Lin was born in June 1963 and grew up in Shanghai. He joined the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1982, while attending Shanghai Normal University part-time to earn an MBA. Xu spent the next few years working as a Communist Youth League committee secretary and township party secretary at a high school in Nanhui County, an area of Shanghai that is now part of Pudong. From there, he moved to positions in the county Policy Research Office, a CCP administrative office responsible for designing policy recommendations on ideological, political, economic, and social matters for the county government. After a few years serving as party vice secretary in Jiading District in northwestern Shanghai, Xu was moved to the Shanghai Nonggongshang Group, a state-owned enterprise in charge of Shanghai’s agricultural businesses, where he held a number of senior leadership positions. In 2003 Xu was appointed head of the Shanghai Municipal Civil Affairs Bureau, overseeing a wide variety of city government operations. In 2007 he was promoted to the Shanghai Municipal Committee (the CCP committee that oversees the city government). In 2013 he was made head of the Shanghai Propaganda Department, his stepping stone to a position in the central government.
Xu’s rise through the ranks of the Shanghai party bureaucracy to now lead one of the most significant central agencies has been meteoric. When he was appointed to the Shanghai Municipal Committee’s Standing Committee in 2007, he was its youngest member. At the time, China’s state news agency named him the biggest "political star" on the committee, and quoted colleagues saying he was a "workaholic." As director of the municipal agricultural affairs committee in 2007, Xu worked directly under Chinese President Xi Jinping during Xi’s seven month tenure as Shanghai Party Secretary. This exposure to the country’s current top leader may have played a role in Xu’s appointment last year as Vice Director of the Central Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs, which Xi chairs, with a concomitant posting as first (among three) Vice Director of the Cyberspace Administration of China. And last month he was elevated to head the agency.
What does Xu believe?
In his publicly-available writing, Xu Lin has unsurprisingly tread the party’s ideological line. For example, in 2009 and 2010 articles in Seek Truth, the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship ideological journal, Xu highlights the work of the Shanghai city government to promote economic reform, stressing the city’s adherence to "scientific development," CCP cant originally promoted by then-President Hu Jintao.
In 2013, Xu published another article in Seek Truth on "firmly grasping the initiative in propaganda and thought work." In the article, Xu advocates improving the quality of cadres working on propaganda and media and strictly controlling their ideological positions. Recognizing the central position that the internet has assumed in determining public perceptions of events in China, Xu argues that measuring and shaping online public opinion should be "of the utmost importance" to propaganda and thought work, and that traditional media should move online or risk becoming obsolete. At the same time, Xu writes, propaganda and thought work should provide theoretical and intellectual support for reform and development. Xu takes a similar stance in an article published in People’s Daily a week prior to his promotion to head CAC, arguing that government agencies must do better in using the mobile internet to shape public opinion.
Nothing here is terribly novel: these positions are standard fare for the Chinese Communist Party officials. And while it was once radical for a CCP official to propose accepting that the internet had become the new domain of public opinion, by 2013 even the most conservative propaganda officials were on board with this reality.
What’s ahead for CAC?
All of this suggests that the new head of the Cyberspace Administration of China is fairly orthodox. But while Xu Lin may not have the panache of his predecessor, his rapid advancement through the Shanghai municipal government indicate that he is probably an effective administrator. Reports suggest that the work environment at CAC is more like a startup than a traditional Chinese government bureaucracy: it has one of the youngest average employee ages of any central government agency and employees are expected to work long hours. With cyberspace affairs becoming an increasingly important issue for Beijing, it remains to be seen whether Xu proves a deft hand in helming this ship.