There had never been a Chinese television personality quite like the handsome and erudite Rui Chenggang. At the tender age of 36, he’d become the most popular personality on China’s state-owned CCTV network. Economic News, his high-profile nightly business news program, boasted an estimated 10 million viewers. Rui himself counted the same number of followers on the Sina Weibo microblog.
Rui was not just another pretty talking head. Before his sudden, surprising detention on July 11 (likely for graft, though charges have yet to be announced), he was a nationalist firebrand respected and admired by the Communist establishment. In 2007, he led a successful online campaign to evict a 7-year-old Starbucks outlet from the Forbidden City. In 2011, he opened an interview with the incoming U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke by asking: “I hear you flew here coach. Is that a reminder that U.S. owes China money?” This was red meat to Chinese nationalists, and it sharply differentiated Rui from other CCTV personalities, who avoid standing out on the basis of their political views.
So news of Rui’s detention has left many Chinese with an uneasy feeling. To be sure, the news was greeted with plenty of schadenfreude (no doubt, much of it from journalists who would’ve happily traded places with Rui before his arrest). But even among those who honestly detested Rui’s patriotic showboating, there was something unsettling about the sudden fall of such a fast-rising star. “What kind of soil cultivates evil and twists a young talent?” Zhao Xiao, a professor at Beijing’s prestigious University of Science and Technology wrote on Sina Weibo. “That is a question worth contemplating.”
In the days since Rui’s detention, a large number of public intellectuals and even state-owned news outlets have been wondering the same thing. On July 12, the writer Zhangwen used his Sina Weibo account to offer a concise answer to Professor Zhao’s question: “It’s hard to be righteous in a dirty environment.”
The commentator Zhou Kaili, writing for the newsmagazine Time-Weekly, blamed young TV anchor’s ambition more directly, declaring that “the mysterious crime was committed because Rui went about moving into the elite classes using the means of a sick social system and finally went astray.” Wu Yue San Ren, a popular commentator on Chinese current events, took a more nuanced view in a longer Sina Weibo meditation:
“Rui Chenggang is brilliant and diligent. His ambition can’t be blamed. But if you pursue your ambitions in a certain kind of environment, you often have to do things you don’t want to do. I’ve seen too many examples. The environment and the system stimulate the dark side of humanity.”
Until his detention, Rui was very much a role model for Xi Jinping’s China: international, brash and stanchly patriotic. For the state news establishment, his sudden fall from grace thus poses a major problem. Many outlets have actively distanced themselves from a man once viewed as one of their own. “As for the patriotic aura of Rui Chenggang,” sniffed the hardline Global Times newspaper last week, “some people take this as the opportunity to attack patriotism. The tradition of patriotism is flourishing in Chinese culture and nobody can claim to be its ‘spokesman' or cause its downfall.”
Of course, Rui wouldn’t be the first scoundrel — in or outside of China — to use patriotism as a tool of career advancement. But because he had become synonymous with a certain kind of officially sanctioned patriotism, his fall is an uncomfortable reminder that in China today, being a good Communist isn’t always the same as being a good citizen.
Adam Minter is an American writer based in Asia.
© 2014, Bloomberg News