China media break silence on journalist Rui Chenggang, sparking intrigue

By Kerry Allen
BBC Monitoring

  • Published
File photo: Rui Chenggang, January 2010Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Rui Chenggang has been described as a "rock star" journalist

Chinese media have broken a two-year silence on a high-profile journalist who was arrested on suspicion of corruption - sparking speculation and excitement on social media.

Rui Chenggang, from state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV), was once one of China's most prominent TV news presenters.

He was detained in July 2014 "on suspicion of taking bribes" as part of President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign - and has not been heard from since.

His social media account on Weibo, which had garnered over 11 million followers, also fell silent.

His disappearance attracted widespread interest, with some speculating that his growing influence might have been seen as a threat to state power, and led to the media silence surrounding his case.

On Tuesday, his name finally resurfaced as newspapers began reporting that Mr Rui would soon stand trial.

A history of controversy

Mr Rui is a fluent English speaker and began working for the English-language channel of CCTV in 2000.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The Starbucks coffee shop in Beijing's Forbidden City was shut down in 2007

He shot to national fame in 2007 after leading a successful campaign to get the government to remove a Starbucks coffee shop from Beijing's famous tourist attraction, the Forbidden City. He criticised it in his blog as an invasion of China's historical heritage, and gained significant support from the public.

From 2008-2014, he hosted a number of programmes on financial channel CCTV-2, and became known as a "star anchor" for his seemingly arrogant and aggressive style.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot was interviewed by Rui

He gained influence as a prominent foreign affairs journalist, impressing viewers by using his English to interview prominent figures like Australia's former Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Influential netizen

Working at CCTV, Rui was perceived as being a firm nationalist, but somebody who was unafraid of causing a stir.

He famously addressed US President Barack Obama at a 2011 G20 press conference by boldly claiming he could speak for "all of Asia".

Image source, Sina Weibo
Image caption,
Rui Chenggang's Sina Weibo account has millions of followers despite being inactive since 2014

Mr Rui's bold personality meant that he was listed as one of the microblog's most influential netizens in 2014.

However, his Weibo account fell silent following his arrest in 2014 and his name became a censored search term. Censorship-monitoring website Free Weibo has captured hundreds of filtered posts mentioning him over the last two years.

Following fresh news reports about him on 12 April, Mr Rui's last post from July 2014 has amassed tens of thousands of new comments from users asking where he's been.

"It's been years, are you ok?" many users asked.

"What happened" asked 'Beryl105'.

"Disappeared, and not just off the air"

Chinese state media have remained notably tight-lipped over Rui's case over the last two years.

Consequently, the sudden mention of his name again in state news outlets has surprised social media users.

Image source, China Business Journal
Image caption,
China Business Journal's original article about Rui has been taken down

National newspaper China Business Journal reminds readers that Mr Rui "disappeared, and not just off the air... along with many [CCTV] staff in an unusually 'hot' summer".

"Rui's case and others... will soon enter legal proceedings," it said, in an article that was shared by several prominent web portals.

"Thought he'd secretly been killed"

Thousands of Weibo users read the reports and began rapidly discussing the fate of Mr Rui.

Many expressed surprise at the official explanation for his disappearance.

"It's hard to accept that he's been in detention without trial for two years," said one user.

"I thought he'd secretly been killed," added user Yao Cunzhang, a sentiment echoed by many others.

Users have also shown scepticism over the official reason given for Rui's detention, with many believing that he has become a "scapegoat" for sensitive reasons close to state power.

Many social media users are speculating that rumours of sexual indiscretion among the senior leadership might be behind his disappearance.

However, it seems the censors were not happy with the intense interest in Mr Rui's case.

The original China Business Journal article has now been taken down, and shares of the article have similarly been removed from popular web portals.

A number of Sina Weibo posts about Mr Rui have also been removed.

BBC Monitoring reports and analyses news from TV, radio, web and print media around the world. You can follow BBC Monitoring on Twitter and Facebook.