China’s most media-savvy official keeps quiet about promotion

Chen Li has 15 million followers on Sina Weibo but failed to mention his new appointment

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 November, 2013, 4:54pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 November, 2013, 8:57am

Chen Li, China’s most media-savvy Communist Party official with more than 15 million followers on Sina Weibo, was promoted to spokesperson for the party’s highest legal decision-making body, the Central Politics and Law Commission, sometime earlier this year. But, somewhat ironically, no one was told about it until Tuesday.

The frequent commentator on social conflict in rural China gathered a massive following – more than Mariah Carey, Bill Gates or CNN’s followers on Twitter – within the last year, while he served as the deputy head of security for Shaanxi province.

The outspoken official continued to post messages on his Sina Weibo account after his appointment, but has not mentioned his promotion, which has not been formally announced. Observers had to resort to old-fashioned Kremlinology, the study of appearances and state media references, to confirm the newly minted spokesperson’s promotion.

On Monday, a commentary ascribed to Chen appeared in the Beijing Youth Daily, in which he made a plea for tolerance in dealing with dissent online, titled A Big-V’s [influential microblogger] thoughts on microblogging. A footnote declared him a staffer with the authoritative legal body, sparking debate about the possible career move.

Observers also noticed that from April he repeatedly mentioned Meng Jianzhu, the head of the commission and a Politburo member, in his microblog posts.

On Tuesday, the Beijing News, a popular daily newspaper in the capital, tracked Chen down and asked him to confirm his promotion.

“My work underwent a regular transfer, it isn’t necessarily linked with me being an internet celebrity,” he told the paper. “I was good at communicating with the public through microblogs in my last position. I will use this way to communicate with the public in my new position as well.”

The newspaper said he 55-year-old now served as the deputy head of the commission’s propaganda department, thus putting him in charge of dealing with the media. He pledged to work towards “open and transparent law enforcement”, the paper said.

Chen’s rise to the top decision-making body on matters of law and security comes amid a silencing of prominent commentators on Chinese social media. He has three million more followers than Charles Xue Biqun, so far the most prominent internet celebrity detained amid the crackdown. Xue is being detained on charges of soliciting prostitution.

Other less prominent online commentators have been detained on charges of extortion, or “stirring troubles”.

Chen downplayed the crackdown against internet commentators when asked by the Beijing News on his thoughts about it. “We don’t look at their status, we look at what they do, whether or not it’s legal,” he said.