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China Monitors the Internet and the Public Pays the Bill

The article was originally written by Michelle Fong and published in Chinese on 16 of July 2014. This English version was translated by Jennifer Cheung and republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.

There are around 2 million Internet public opinion analysts  in China. Image from Voice of America.

There are around 2 million Internet public opinion analysts in China. Image from Voice of America.

New data shows that government and private sector “Internet public opinion analysts” may have the most popular job in China. And the sector is growing rapidly. 

Different from the “Fifty-Cent Party” who are responsible for channelling public opinions by writing online comments and deleting posts, Internet public opinion analysts use computer software to monitor all the social networking sites, collect netizen opinions and attitudes, compile reports and submit the reports to decision-makers.

According to The Beijing News, roughly 2 million people in China currently work as public opinion analysts, officially outnumbering China's 1.5 million active armed service members. Sina, one of China's largest online content providers, has pointed out that the scale of the Internet monitoring business can reach hundreds of billions yuan, with the market expanding by roughly 50% every year.

Taxpayers bear the cost of government monitoring systems
But the trend also levies a heavy tax burden on the public, as the market for these analysts is created by the government’s need for “stability maintenance”. Government agencies today spend huge amounts of public money on opinion monitoring. Very often, they subcontract the work to party-affiliated private companies, an expense that ultimately hits taxpayers.

He Qinglian, an economics and sociology scholar, called it a “stability maintenance industry”, designed to help the government tighten its grip over public opinions on the Internet. Indeed, it is plain to see that “stability maintenance” work has turned into an economy of its own, with a government-created market need, business model for private sectors to serve the government, and a new professional status, which is granted by party-affiliated agents, like the Public Opinion Monitoring Unit.

“Stability maintenance” by the numbers
The People’s Daily Public Opinion Monitoring Unit, affiliated with the online version of government newspaper People’s Daily, was founded in 2008 with the goal of building a more comprehensive online public opinion monitoring system to quantify the public sentiment. It primarily monitors public opinion regarding government affairs, produces magazines such as “Internet public opinion” and “Help Leaders Understand the Internet”, and launches Internet surveillance platforms and public opinion reports. The annual revenue generated by its public opinion business can reach 200 million yuan.

Beijing's Fifth Internet Public Opinion Training Class recently posted a call for applications, which is likely to stir a registration boom. Deputy Secretary General Shan Xuegang of the Public Opinion Monitoring Unit issued an Enrollment Notice, stating that the five-day course is priced at 7800 yuan (roughly USD 1,260), which includes a training fee of 3980 yuan and a tuition fee of 3820 yuan. There will also be an accommodation charge of 2000 yuan. The Notice also lists directors of the relevant departments of party and government institutions at all levels as the training target. The stability-maintenance economy is ultimately self-serving.

There are more than 800 public opinion monitoring and software companies in China today, with the number rising steadily. The China-based Public Opinion Research Institute estimates that the public opinion monitoring services market has a business scale of hundreds of billions yuan. As its growth is mainly boosted by government demand, the industry has to serve a huge market, with an average annual growth of over 50%.

According to information from the Chinese government procurement platform, there are nearly 200 public tenders on the “Public Opinion Monitoring System”. From central government ministries to lower-level municipalities and counties, relevant departments’ expenditures on the public opinion monitoring can range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands yuan, with some projects even costing millions. The government on one hand sponsors its civil servants to receive relevant trainings; on the other hand, it also employs external analysts and related systems to construct a huge network of interests. 

Promoting state propaganda in the “mass microphone era”
In an interview with Radio Free Asia, Zhejiang province-based freelance writer Zan Aizong described Internet public opinion analysts as the “Senior Fifty-Cent Party,” noting that many had previously worked in temporary government positions of a similar nature. She continued:

“Now the government gives them a comprehensive system of training, certification and official titles, allowing the temporary workers to become full-time employees. The government can also publicly use the stability maintenance fees to build relevant departments and hire people.”

People's Daily Public Opinion Monitoring Unit Secretary-General Zhu Hua explained at the 13th China Internet Media Forum that the role of the public opinion analysts is to provide intelligence about online public sentiments to the governments and corporates to improve their governance, operation and public image. The objective, as Zhu put it, is to promote propaganda that will help win the “guerrilla battle” against the background of the rise of “mass microphone era”.

References:

NetEase: Beijing fifth internet public opinion analysts training open to enrollment today
Southern Weekly: Public opinion analyst stuck between a rock and a hard place
Radio Free Asia: China tightens Internet public opinion monitoring, to develop Internet public opinion analysts
Xinhua: Public opinion business’ value and market space in the time of media transformation
Xinhua: Public opinion monitoring improves the nation’s governance and modernisation
Sina: Dancing with big data, Huangsheng & SEEC develop public opinion monitoring business

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