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Leaked Documents Reveal How the Chinese Communist Party Channels Public Opinion

West Gate of Peking University. Photo by 維基小霸王 via Flickr (CC BY-SA 3.0)

West Gate of Peking University. Photo by 維基小霸王 via Flickr (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A central government coordination body called Central Internet Security and Informatization Leading Group was established on February 27, 2014 led by the Chinese President Xi Jinping, Premier Li keqiang and head of the propaganda authority Liu Yunshan. Such high level coordination group suggests that internet information security has become the top priority of the Chinese government.

In addition the protection of domestic information network, the control over information flow in the Internet through censorship and opinion channelling are considered as most important “stability maintenance” routine. In order to strengthen the monitoring of the Internet, the Chinese government decided to endorse “Internet opinion analyst” as an official occupation status. Many critics point out that the policy implies a change of the Chinese government propaganda tactic, yet relatively little is known about how opinions are “channelled” and what mechanisms analysts use in order to do their jobs. This begs the question: what exactly do online opinion analysts do? 

Different from the “Fifty-Cent Party,” people who are responsible for channelling public opinions by writing online comments and deleting posts, online opinion analysts use computer software to monitor social networking sites and forums, collect netizen opinions and attitudes, compile reports and submit the reports to decision-makers. Opinion analysts provide crisis management strategies for private, state and party-affiliated institutions such as universities, charity groups and civic organizations, as well as local and national governmental authorities. 

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.

A recently leaked evaluation of an opinion-channelling program at Peking University reveals much about the mechanism of Party-led opinion making in China. The research center, led by the Communist Youth League of China, is responsible for the coordination of opinion channelling and analysis within the University. The program monitors online conversations and messaging within the University community and publishes regular reports analyzing online opinion for University administrators. 

The leaked report concerned opinion-channelling efforts at Yenching Academy, a residential college at Peking University that launched this past spring. Yenching offers full scholarships for an one-year Master program of Chinese Studies (taught in English) and is designed to prepare an elite class of future global leaders. According to the University's plan, the residential college was to be located beside the main library at the center of the campus, which is surrounded with ancient Chinese courtyards and buildings. Many felt that the development project would ruin the heritage of Peking University.

In June, a university online survey showed that 88% of people were against the proposed location of the Academy's residence. University students started organizing campus protests in late June. An open letter about the matter, addressed to the Chinese president Xi Jinping, was posted on Weibo on July 6.

On July 9, the Peking University leaders discussed the matter with university faculty members and students at an open consultation session. 

The leaked evaluation, published by the Youth Research Center, describes the work undertaken by the opinion channelling program since July 9, the date of the open consultation.

According to the report, the university administrative and party office coordinated with the Youth Research Center and bulletin board system administrator on July 10 to obtain at set of user accounts. Online “bulletin board” systems are widely used for communication and discussion on Chinese university campuses. 

The bulletin board system administrator opened six work-related accounts for the online commentators. They began posting comments about the Yenching Academy project that afternoon.

Most of their comments expressed support for the Yenching project. At 19:11pm, work-related user account “dwww”, who claimed to be a university alumnus, posted an long article entitled, “My experience in the consultation on Yenching Academy,” intended to criticize those who opposed the project. 

The evaluation document pointed out that the language used in the post was too formalistic, unlike that of regular bulletin board system users. In addition, it leveraged personal attacks on certain teachers and students who spoke out against the project during the consultation on July 9. The post agitated other bulletin board system users, who soon dug into the IP records of “dwww”, along with those of other user accounts that flooded the system with support for the Yenching project. 

These users eventually discovered that “dwww” and “pkudavid” shared the same IP address — one that pointed to the office of University president. By tracking the user activities of “pkudavid” for a couple of days, other system users concluded that the user account belonged to Yang Dawei, the chief of the Peking University Party Office. 

In order to stop netizens from attacking Yang and the Party, the Center started to delete posts, ban user accounts and change the “hot topic” list (similar to trending topics on Twitter). But this did not stop users, who simply moved to social media such as the twitter-like Weibo, Facebook-like Renren and mobile social networking platform WeChat to expose the scandal. 

Headlines such as “Lie Exposed: Peking University Staff Member Pretended to be Alumnus to Support Yenching Project” became a hot topic on social media, and many popular Peking University alumni netizens such as “Peking U Voices” forwarded the story to their followers. Without question, the incident has undermined the university’s credibility.

The document puts forth three suggestions for future opinion channelling work: 

1. Improve opinion channelling skills, avoid accumulation of antagonistic sentiment.

2. Direct dialogue and communication, tried to include reasonable suggestions in the project. 

3. Prevent infiltration from both domestic and foreign/outside forces. Opinions within the university bulletin board system are under control, but the support from propaganda authorities and national information office is essential for controlling opinion on other social media platforms. To serve the interest of the university’s long-term development, it is necessary to crack down and punish those who spread rumors, launch personal attacks, and defame the university and its leaders. 

This case study demonstrates the difference between online commentators and opinion analysts, the so-called “50 cents” who actually take up the task of writing comments to channel online opinion, while the latter coordinates, evaluates and gives future direction for online opinion channelling work.

At first glance, opinion channeling appears similar to public relations work in other countries. But the leaked report suggests that Chinese online opinion analysts working for state-controlled institutions function more like intelligence agents, as they actively formulate governance tactics for the Chinese Communist Party. The report also shows that they are able to reach out to propaganda authorities for support on the ideological battlefield.

This evaluation report was leaked out in Baidu as public document initially but was taken offline quickly. However, netizens are copying the document and circulation it around without making much comments – as implied by the suggestions of the Youth Resesarch Center, any critical commentary that can be intrepeted as personal attack or defamation can lead to persecution.

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