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Goodbye Skype. China’s internet censorship juggernaut rolls on without its former cyber tsar

Beijing is continuing to tighten its grip on cyberspace with the removal of internet phone services, including Microsoft’s popular Skype application, from China’s app stores.

The app’s disappearance came as the Communist Party’s watchdog announced that former internet tsar Lu Wei had been detained on suspicion of “serious violations of party discipline”, a euphemism for graft.

Skype was not available in app stores in China overseen by Apple, Tencent and Qihoo 360 Technology. Alphabet’s Google Play app store is not available in China.

Asked about the disappearance of Skype from the App Store, Apple said late on Tuesday that it had removed several internet phone call apps from the outlet in China after the country’s government said they violated local laws.

“We have been notified by the Ministry of Public Security that a number of voice over internet protocol apps do not comply with local law. Therefore these apps have been removed from the App Store in China,” an Apple spokeswoman said.

“These apps remain available in all other markets where they do business.”

The Cyberspace Administration of China, which oversees censored technology, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The cyberspace administration was headed by Lu Wei until his abrupt removal from office more than a year ago.

In an article posted on the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection’s (CCDI) website on Wednesday, the watchdog said Lu’s fall from grace was “not surprising”, referring to a special disciplinary inspection in April that uncovered a series of problems at the administration.

The powerful department, once a branch under the central government press office, was upgraded into a full government agency in 2014 to support the operations of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s newly founded leading group on cybersecurity and information technology.

As the head of the administration, Lu was the public face of Beijing’s tight and ever-broader online censorship.

“Lu did what [Xi’s administration] wanted,” University of Hong Kong associate journalism professor Fu King-wa said. “I don’t think there is any change to the tightening internet control.”

On Lu’s watch, legions of outspoken and influential commentators on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, were silenced and once-lively debates on politics and policy shut down.

He also helped launch the World Internet Conference, a platform Xi used to promote “equitable global internet governance” to the international information technology elite.

Nevertheless, the CCDI criticised the administration for failing to ensure “political security” and carry out Xi’s directives on time.

Officials at the administration were also accused of forming “small circles” and having a weak capacity to steer clear of corruption, the CCDI said.

Rogier Creemers, an expert in Chinese law and governance at Leiden University in the Netherlands, said Lu was “a very big driver” of the institutionalising of China’s internet policies but he was not a policymaker.

“Lu Wei has been out of the scene for a while now. His influence disappeared when he was fired from that position. What happened since then has clearly demonstrated the direction of travel,” Creemers said.

He said what happened to Lu was more or less “happening to him personally”.

But a Beijing-based media researcher said Lu’s fall would likely make his former colleagues more cautious. “The result is further tightening of their control in the short term,” he said.

Five months into the tenure of Lu’s successor Xu Lin, the national legislature passed a controversial cybersecurity law despite objections from governments and companies overseas.

In January, authorities launched a 14-month campaign to crack down on unauthorised VPN services, tools used by Chinese internet users to bypass the “Great Firewall” and access blocked sites.

Domestic censorship has been expanded from politics to cover the more freewheeling world of entertainment, with dozens of accounts on everything from celebrity gossip to movie reviews taken offline this summer.

Users of the encrypted messaging app WhatsApp also experienced frequent service disruptions in the run-up to last month’s five-yearly party congress.