Undercover Internet Commentators on the Chinese Internet

The reality is that so much is seen about China in the western media is gleamed from the Chinese media.  It is true that American newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post, British newspapers such as The Guardian, Hong Kong newspapers such as South China Morning Post and others have offices in China, but you have to imagine what is happening in this country of 1.3 billion persons compared to the meagre China-related columns that appear every few days in these newspapers.  Still, the western media are the main channels to catch a glimpse of China, even if these are often selected and filtered reports gleamed from the Chinese media.  While there is not too much interest in much of official press releases, there are some media that are working on the edge.  So this is the story about one of them.

First, there was a long article in Nanfang Weekend about undercover online commentators on the Chinese Internet.  The weekend edition of this newspaper is able to give detailed, in-depth coverage of special topics which are less hurried than the daily news items.  This article quoted extensively from an official who is involved in one such operation in the city of Suqian, Jiangsu province.  That sort of access and openness on such a sensitive subject would not be available to the New York Times or the Washington Post, much less Radio Free Asia and Voice of America.  But there it was for the world to read, and posted on the Internet edition of the Nanfang Weekend.

Immediately, Reuters, Radio Free Asia and Voice of America produced abbreviated news reports that were based upon this article, while adding some comments from the usual list of people who are out of the loop but who have plenty of opinions to offer.  Maybe these were accurate representations or interpretations of the original article, or maybe not.  In any case, here is the net result: these news reports came to the attention of the almighty Internet nanny, and the original article has been removed from the Nanfang Weekend website.

As I have said, one of the major strengths of the EastSouthWestNorth blog is the ability to provide English-language translations of original Chinese-language documents.  So here is that original Nanfang Weekend article in English.  I have also included the original Chinese-language article at the bottom of the page, since it has been disappeared (note: I recovered the article with thanks to the Baidu cache!).  You should read the original source, make up your own mind and be less impressed by the shortened summaries or influenced by a bunch of people who are called 'experts.'  I will have something to say about this whole business; but my usual custom is to separate my personal opinions from an original source.  I have no intention of making you think the same way that I do, because the world would be fairly miserable as a result!

Suqian: The practical aspects of directing Internet opinion.  Nanfang Weekend, May 19, 2005.

Suqian's "Internet propaganda team"

As of April 28, 2005, Jiangsu province Suqian City Committee External Propaganda Office director Ma Zhichun has an additional duty: Suqian City Internet commentator.

On this day, Internet Commentator Team No. 1 of Suqian City was formed.

In the office of the External Propaganda Office on the seventh floor of the government office building in the new district of Suqian City, Ma Zhichun showed this reporter with some pride his new "letter of employment as Internet commentator."  The letter was printed on light brown paper and looked quite fancy.  On the official inauguration of the Suqian Internet Commentator team on April 28, Ma Zhichun received this letter of employment from Suqian City Propaganda Department deputy director Zhang Fenglin, and became one of the first Internet commentator for Suqian City for a duration of two years.

When Ma Zhichun received his letter, another twenty-five letters of employment were also handed out to other persons

This new "news propaganda team" was built up from the propaganda structure in Suqian City.  The 26 Internet commentators came from the Suqian City Committee Propaganda Department, the Suqian City District Committee Propaganda Departments and various Municipal departments.  The selectees from the municipal departments were basically the leaders of the news departments or their spokespersons.

Upon information, the Internet commentators were recommended internally and the Propaganda Department then makes its selections.  So it is not a public advertisement of employment as reported in a certain media entity some time ago.  Earlier this year, in response to the request from the Suqian City Propaganda Department, the city propaganda system and the municipal organizations had recommended more than 60 people.

"Understand policies, knows theory, politically reliable and good job skills were the selection criteria," said Ma Zhichun.  "Also, the person must be familiar with the Internet, likes to obtain information from the Internet and understands Internet technology."  When Ma Zhichun reached this point, he felt a bit embarrassed for being so boastful, as he realized that he met those "standards."  He then put his letter away inside his drawer, laughed and said that it was probably not too rigorous because he had no idea why he was chosen.

Looking at the resumι of Ma Zhichun, it was clear that he meets the standards for "Internet commentator."  He is less than 40 years old, a university graduate and was a member of the Suqian Daily news committee before becoming the director of the Siquan City External Propaganda Office.  Having been in news propaganda for a long time, he has developed the habit of browsing for news on the Internet.  When he met this reporter who came to Suqian to interview him, we exchanged business cards and he promised that he would go and look up this reporter's past news reports; when we met for a second time, Ma Zhichun was happy to talk to this reporter about some of the news reports that he has read.

City Committee Propaganda Office Deputy Director Lu Ruchao was another Internet commentator.  Lu Ruchao was a policeman, he is 24 years old and he enjoys chatting on the Internet.  "For example, I go to the Suqian chatroom on the Internet," said Lu Ruchao.  "The chatroom is the place where public opinion is focused, and the commentators should pay attention to it," he added.

According to the document "Practical ideas on Suqian City Internet opinion," the City Committee Propaganda will establish the "Internet Administration Office" and "Internet News Administration Office" to manage the daily activities of the Internet commentators.  There will be periodic communications meetings on news topics.  At the end of each year, the job performances of the Internet commentators will be evaluated for the annual appraisals and feedback.

The City Propaganda Department will offer training to the Internet commentators, and the classes will include Marxist theories about news, the Party's propaganda policies, how to control the high points of Internet opinions, the state of development of the Internet inside and outside of China, etc.

The Key Is To Seize The Initiative

"Develop actively, increase control, accentuate the good and avoid the bad, use it to our advantage" is the statement about how to practice Internet commentary.  These words form the key summary statement.  On the inauguration meeting of the Internet commentator team, Suqian City Committee Propaganda Department Deputy Director Zhang Fenglin said, "In the information age and the Internet age, the most important and critical mission in front of us is to is how to seize the initiative on Internet opinion and how to seize the high point of Internet opinion."

Ma Zhichun and Lu Ruchao are both in agreement on this: "The key is to seize the initiative."

Actually, even before the Internet commentator team was formed, Ma Zhichun and his Propaganda Department colleagues had deeply felt the importance of seizing the initiative.

Beginning in July 2004, Suqian City began a public campaign for hardworking and honest officials.  The public campaign used many means to mobilize various social sectors as well as the masses.  The public campaign asked for written comments about the publicly disclosed reports on the job evaluation of cadres in various government units.

During this public campaign, a total of 2,476 cadres were involved in two waves in Suqian City.  Among these, 10 cadre leaders were publicly criticized by name afterwards, 248 were issued reprimands, 61 were warned, 12 were dismissed or transferred; 17 people were rated as only "basically satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory" on working habits; 16 were rated as only "basically satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory" on honesty.  Of these, 7 were country department chiefs.

For a time, public opinion was boiling over in Suqian City.  A cadre in the Commerce Department of Suqian City said that he heard citizens talking about it on the way home every night.  "But many of the comments were unfavorable, because they thought that all cadres were dirty."  Such kinds of "street talk" soon showed up on the Internet.

Based upon the instructions of the City Committee Propaganda Department, Ma Zhichun and other people who did not yet have the title of Internet commentators at the time began to make "timely explanations" on the "pessimistic talk" on the Internet.  At the same time, the Propaganda Department workers published a series of commentaries about the public campaign on work ethic and honesty.

"In the end, we cleared up some fuzzy thinking and we enhanced the impact of the campaign, and that was good for the development of the work," said Ma Zhichun.

For this and similar Suqian government policy implementations such as "Industrial Breakthrough" and "Public Selection of Public Choices", Ma Zhichun and other Propaganda Department cadres organized more than 10 Internet discussions in their roles as ordinary netizens to target public opinion.  "Our Internet comments and our Internet posts were very effective in leading opinion," Ma Zhichun said.  "Even overseas netizens replied to us."  Based upon the statistics from the External Propaganda Department, in the month of January 2005 alone, more than 3,000 overseas netizens followed up with comments in response to Ma Zhichun and colleagues at the Suqian Internet website.

"The Internet commentators will lead public opinion as ordinary netizens.  This is important, and it is also the most effective way."  Ma Zhichun emphasized.  According to the "Practical ideas on Suqian City Internet opinion," the Internet commentators has the option of using the status of official spokespersons when something major breaks out in order to clarify the truth.

The young Lu Ruchao has the job of being the "opinion police" at the Internet chatroom.  Recently, Lu Ruchao noticed that some chatroom visitors were complaining that the police tended to sound their siren while rushing down the main street, thus disturbing half the city.  In the ensuing comments, the discussion by the netizens turned into criticisms of the police as a whole.

Lu Ruchao immediately followed up by explaining that when a police car sounds a siren, they must have an emergency and so they should not be criticized.  Lu said emotionally, "We have to face knives and guns while on duty every day.  How can they criticize us?  Of course, I have to turn their opinions around."  

Ma Zhichun sensed that the overseas media are particularly attentive to Suqian.  According to the Alexa ranking, Suqian On The Internet is ranked 16,022 out of several hundreds of millions of websites in the world, and it is the second ranked city in the province of Jiangsu behind Wuxi.  "This means that there is a great deal of attention on Suqian.  But honestly, we do not have a great reputation."  Ma Zhichun said, "The duty of an Internet commentator is to actively develop and direct public opinion in China and to create an good image for Suqian outside of China."

According to the "Practical ideas on Suqian City Internet opinion," the Suqian Internet Commentator Team will "follow closely the policy of the Suqian City Committee ... to systematically development propaganda on the Internet, to oppose Internet criticisms, and to develop our Internet leadership; on matters of social concern, the goal is to stop "people blindly following others, people creating confusion, people egging others on, people weakening resolve and people causing the situation to deteriorate."

"The Whole County Is Like One Chessboard"

As Ma Zhichun was explaining the duties of Internet commentator to his reporter, he received a call from a colleague in Suzhou.  "They called to find out about what Internet commentators do.  Suzhou is also interested in forming an Internet commentator team."  Ma Zhichun explained to us after he put the telephone down.

Actually, Suqian was not the first to begin work on Internet commentators.  According to information, within Jiangsu province, Nanjing and Wuxi have already established work on Internet commentators last year.

At the end of January, Jiangus province held a forum to discuss Internet administration.  The forum emphasized "to invoke a high sense of political responsibility to enhance our province's work on Internet administration, to handle harmful information in a very public way, to seize the high point in Internet opinion and to direct opinion on the Internet."

Ma Zhichun attended this meeting.  He said, the forum communicated the intent of the related documents and asked the various cities and districts to increase leadership of Internet opinion.  The idea of Internet commentators was brought up at this forum.  "Therefore, we did not invent the project about Internet commentary," said Ma Zichun.  Instead, "the whole country is like one chessboard."

Suqian is different from the other areas of the province, because its Internet commentators were drawn from its own propaganda organizations.  Ma Zichun believes that compared to the Internet commentators drawn from public employment notices in other areas, Suqian's Internet commentator team will be easier to manage and they are more unified.  Since the Internet commentators come from the propaganda system, they are "politically trustworthy, dependable on working on their own and therefore conducive to letting each perform in their own effective way."

This reporter has made a search of related information on the Internet, and found that indeed "the whole country is like one chessboard" as Ma Zichun said.  Based upon the search results, Jiangsu province's Dajian Net began hiring Internet commentators at the beginning of this year, and a team was formed in early April.  "A group of netizens with high political quality, good literary knowledge, and news awareness have assumed the heavy responsibility of publishing news commentary and leading public opinion."

In Fujian province, the Quanzhou city Committee Propaganda Department, the Quanzhou Evening News and Quanzhou Telecommunications joined to advertise for 20 "Internet news commentators."  More than 60 people applied within several days; the jobs of these Internet commentators are being established right now by the related departments.

"More and more places will look for Internet commentators, and many of them are already deploying them.  The outside world may not be aware as yet," said another cadre of the Suqian City Committee Propaganda Department.

According to other related reports, at the end of last year, a total of 127 Internet commentators completed their training in Beijing.  They were drawn from various provincial, municipal and city supervisory units as well as central government supervisory units.  The central government disciplinary supervisory department has established a leader group for propaganda against corruption, and that has a special Internet Propaganda Department with members drawn from the Central Propaganda Department and the Central Government External Propaganda Department, and this group is linked with the People's Net, Xinhua Net and other central government news websites on the work related to fighting corruption and promoting honesty.

On the inaugural meeting of the Suqian Internet Commentator team, City Committee Deputy Chief Zhang Fenglin told the Internet commentators: "You must use the Internet to its full potential ... and let the Internet be the new ground for the work for constructing ideology."  Zhang Fenglin emphasized the purpose of the project: "To form an environment of public opinions that is suitable for the main theme of constructing a well-off society."

"We were definitely not the first ones to work on Internet commentary, and we will definitely not be the last," Ma Zichun said at the end.

The Path For Internet Opinion

Some experts point out that the value of Internet news and opinions in China has received increasing attention from the national leadership.  The Internet is not only an important channel for party and government officials to obtain information, but it is also a good tool for monitoring public opinion.

According to statistics, there are more than 100 million Internet users now.  These 100 million netizens are the better educated ones, and they are the ones who want to understand national trends and social happenings.

According to researcher Min Dahong at the Chinese Social Sciences Academy, the Chinese Internet media have shown their influence, social standing, political acceptability and the capability to report on important events, and therefore the Internet has become a mainstream medium in China.  Min Dahong believes that the Internet enables the socially vulnerable  and marginalized sectors to gain a certain voice.  The extent of the liveliness of Internet discussions has reached a new high, and it represents a tremendous public pressure that cannot be ignored by any department, organization or the general public.

At the end of 2004, the Chinese Communist Party's central newspaper People's Daily pointed out that the Internet media have the advantages of breadth, instanteity, openness, commonality and interactivity, and these are the qualities that makes the Internet an important ideological battleground.

As for "Internet commentators," a communications scholar said that the situation in China is such that Internet public opinion is not equivalent to overall public opinion, so that this necessitates some form of control.  Under reasonable conditions, something like the "Internet commentators" can lead public opinion to create an Internet environment that is conducive to creating a harmonious society.  "But one cannot consider Internet opinion to be opposed to the harmonious society, nor use that as the excuse for wanting to control Internet opinions."  The scholar asserts, "In a free Internet environment, all sorts of information are being transmitted.  The process of information transmission can include a process for determining the truth/falsity of that message, so that only valuable information can be transmitted in the end."

This scholar believes that public opinion must be led, but there has to be a limit to ensure that the information can be transmitted freely.  "When the government wants to lead opinion, it should consider identifying itself (that is, as government spokespersons) to clarify the facts and state the positions."

The Internet commentators have their own work habits and styles.  After receiving their letters of employment, will they add "Internet commentator" on their business cards?  When asked this question, a Suqian City Committee Propaganda Department cadre thought for a moment, smiled and said, "I don't think so."






Related LinkChina's secret internet police target critics with web of propaganda.  By Jonathan Watts.  June 14, 2005.