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China probes former chief of internet regulator for suspected graft

BEIJING (Reuters) - The former head of China’s powerful internet regulator is under investigation for suspected corruption, the ruling Communist Party said, the latest senior official to be caught up in a sweeping campaign against graft.

Lu Wei was suspected of serious discipline breaches, the party’s corruption-busting Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) said in a brief statement late on Tuesday, using a euphemism for graft.

Reuters was unable to reach Lu or a representative to seek comment.

At the height of his influence, Lu, a colourful and often brash official by Chinese standards, was seen as emblematic of China’s increasingly pervasive internet controls.

Organisers of China’s first World Internet Conference in 2014, set up under Lu to promote Beijing’s vision of internet governance, irked foreign tech firms by seeking their agreement on a last-minute declaration on “internet sovereignty”.

Tech industry representatives ultimately declined to sign the pledge, and rights groups condemned the declaration as an attempt to undermine internet freedom.

In 2015, he told reporters, “Indeed, we do not welcome those that make money off China, occupy China’s market, even as they slander China’s people. These kinds of websites I definitely will not allow in my house.”

But courting China’s powerful internet regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China, was a key task for companies hoping to stay in his good graces or gain access to the huge internet market.

When Lu visited Facebook Inc’s U.S. campus in 2014, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of the social networking site that has long been blocked in China, greeted Lu in Mandarin, according to a Chinese government website.

But Lu’s downfall, foreshadowed by his June 2016 replacement as head of the internet regulator and the loss of his other posts, is unlikely to signal a reversal of internet control policies, which have tightened further under successor Xu Lin.

In a separate statement on its website on Wednesday, the CCDI emphasised the significance of Lu being the first “tiger”, or senior official, to be brought to heel for corruption since the key 19th Communist Party Congress held last month.

It said that under Lu, the cyberspace administration did not carry out President Xi Jinping’s instructions in a timely or resolute fashion.

“The improper use of power occurred on occasion, and the safeguarding of political security was not strong enough,” it said, without elaborating on any of Lu’s specific wrongdoings.

Lu worked his way up though China’s official Xinhua news agency before becoming head of propaganda in Beijing and then moving to internet work in 2013. He became a deputy propaganda minister after being replaced at the internet regulator.

The government has blocked sites it deems could challenge Communist Party rule or threaten stability, including sites such as Facebook and Google’s main search engine and Gmail service.

Xi has waged war against deep-rooted corruption since taking office five years ago, punishing hundreds of thousands of officials.

Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Michael Martina; Additional reporting by Philip Wen; Editing by Richard Pullin, Robert Birsel