Everybody Hates Rui

Once-Swaggering State News Anchor Rui Chenggang Detained in Corruption Probe, Chinese Netizens Rejoice

He may be widely reviled in his home country, but oh, what a resume: The son of an author and screenwriter; a graduate of the prestigious China Foreign Affairs University; a Yale World Fellow; and state-run China Central Television (CCTV)’s best-known bilingual business anchorman. Notwithstanding all this, Rui Chenggang was hauled in for questioning by government authorities, probably as part of a corruption investigation, just before his prime-time business program Economic News was scheduled to go live on July 11. Rui’s account on Weibo, China’s popular microblogging platform, has not been updated since July 10, and he has made no public appearance since. (People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party's official newspaper, wrote on Twitter on July 14 that Rui held shares in Pegasus, a company majority-owned by PR firm Edelman’s Beijing subsidiary, and that Pegasus was providing services to CCTV.)

Chinese netizens may know who Rui is—he has over 10 million Weibo followers—but that doesn’t mean they like him. In fact, on Weibo, China’s closest approximation of a public square, many have cheered Rui’s recent misfortune. Lin Jun, a manager of a textiles company in the eastern city of Ningbo, commented that the reason Rui is so unpopular among netizens is that he willingly acts as a “banner holder” and a “mouthpiece” of the party. “As a public intellectual, Rui knows that democracy is better than autocracy, but acts against his conscience for dirty money,” remarked Luo Yameng, an urban planning expert in Beijing. “This is his reward for selling his soul!” Renowned Chinese economist Wang Fuzhong did not bother to hide his contempt for Rui: “He’s caught glimpse of a few world leaders and thought he has become one of them.”

Before his arrest, at the age of 36 Rui combined the ways of the Western jet-setters with dyed-in-the-wool Chinese nationalism. He had conducted one-on-one interviews with countless business moguls and political leaders around the world, including President Bill Clinton, Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman, and South Korean President Park Geun-Hye, to name a few. He speaks excellent English, and reportedly wears Zegna suits and drives a Jaguar. But Rui is also determinedly nationalistic. In a January 2007 blog post, he called the Starbucks outlet in Beijing’s Forbidden City “a vehicle and token for American low-class food culture,” an invasion by Western culture into China's national symbol, and the resulting uproar ended with the U.S.-based chain closing that location. At the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting at Davos, Switzerland in September 2011, Rui provocatively asked Gary Locke, then U.S. Ambassador to China, whether flying economy class to China was “a reminder that the U.S. still owes China money.” The antics seemed excessively confrontational to many Westerners, as well as many Chinese—scholar Yang Hengjun said Rui was “acting like he knows what he’s talking about when he has no idea”—but they have doubtless raised Rui’s profile.

Given the recent disdain heaped on this known nationalist, Chinese state media were quick to argue that Rui’s corruption charges bore no relation to his ostensible patriotism. On its Weibo account, Party mouthpiece People’s Daily insisted that “the only criteria for conviction” in Rui’s case “are truth and law... it has nothing to do with patriotism.” Another Party-controlled newspaper, the nationalist Global Times, wrote, “As to the fact that Rui used to have a patriotic halo, and that some used his downfall to attack patriotism, this is merely a media bubble.” One Twitter user who frequently commented on Chinese politics tweeted in Chinese that “people feel good seeing high-profile, fawning, pretentious people taken down.”

Perhaps the single most quoted phrase to comment on Rui is “sophisticated egoist,” a term famously used by Peking University professor Qian Liqun in 2012 to describe students at Peking University in Beijing, China’s highly selective flagship university. Many find this phrase, which means people who are smart, worldly, and good at acting and leveraging the institutional rules for their personal agendas, applicable to Rui. On Zhihu, a major Chinese question-and-answer site, the most popular answer to the question “Why Do So Many People Hate Rui Chenggang?” is that he represents established elites without sympathy for others, who “fawn over the powerful and bully the weak.” Many think Rui is opportunistic, and too smart for his own good, even calling him the Julien Sorel of China, the protagonist in the French novel Le Rouge et Le Noir (or, The Red and the Black) who climbs the social ladder with immense ambition, willpower, and resourcefulness, yet ultimately endures rejection by Parisian high society and is sentenced to death.

Some think it’s unfair to blame everything on Rui alone, seeking instead institutional reasons to explain his recent disgrace. Another Chinese reporter asked her colleagues in a July 13 post on web portal Tencent Finance, “If you were in Rui’s place, wouldn’t you also become a mouthpiece and fall all over the rich and powerful?” In a July 14 blog post, scholar Yang Zao commented that “the corrosion of power and temptation of prestige have been traps since the beginning of time.” Another Weibo user asked, “Doesn’t our society’s definition of success idolize people like Rui, who have decent IQ and appearances and seize every opportunity to climb up the ladder? One Rui Chenggang fell, but millions of newcomers will still look up to him.” Meanwhile, Rui’s online supporters number at least 7,000, united as they are under the roof of Rui’s Fan Hut on Weibo. But they appear outnumbered by Rui’s detractors.

The young anchor’s seeming downfall came suddenly, but Rui’s own conception of his public personality seems to have underscored the fragility of his reputation. His profile on People’s Daily says his favorite book is The Great Gatsby, a tale of soaring but ruined ambition, while a June 2012 profile by liberal magazine Southern Weekly reports that at a young age, Rui memorized these lines from Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” If Rui was but a player, however prominent, that means he was vulnerable to the whims of his directors. On July 11, they may have finally decided it was time for the brash personality to get yanked from the limelight.