By David Bandurski — Ever since President Hu Jintao’s speech on June 20, 2008, about the need to “actively set the agenda,” officials across China have set to work finding new and creative ways to massage public opinion. We’ve offered plenty of analysis and commentary on Hu’s new approach to news and propaganda, so we’ll spare readers the jabber and cut straight to the materials.

Below is a piece published in a recent issue of China Press Journal (中华新闻报), a publication of the All-China Journalist’s Association. The article was reposted at Nanfang Daily, the online China Journalism Review and other places on August 13.

In language typical of the thinking we’ve seen recently, the article talks about public opinion in terms of “crisis.”

This is in fact an apt characterization, as a lack of real transparency and responsiveness at government institutions and the crisis of credibility facing China’s media has meant that public opinion often emerges irrationally and explosively (on the Internet or on the streets). Precisely because, to reiterate the point, state controls limit rational channels.

Is it so surprising that Chinese officials are obsessed with putting out fires? After all, preventing them would require a more serious project of political reform, beginning with an expansion of media freedoms.



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[ABOVE: Is this what public opinion looks like to a CCP official? Photo by vissago available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license.]

A full translation of the China Press Journal piece follows:

How Public Prosecutors Can Neutralize Online Opinion Crises (检察机关如何化解网络舆情危机)
August 13, 2009

What is online public opinion? Online public opinion refers to the views, beliefs, attitudes or emotions expressed by the masses of Web users concerning various social (either real or virtual) problems and phenomena. An “opinion crisis” involves rather deep and broad opinion on an especially provocative event, in which a substantial volume of information in a short period of time . . . If the side attacked cannot correctly address it, this “crisis” might, instantly or very quickly, become a mass incident involving conflict of opinions and perhaps conflict of real actions.

Online public opinion crises involving public prosecutors refer to “public opinion crises” concerning the work and team building efforts of prosecuting offices that emerge and are disseminated on the Internet and have already, or might quickly, have a baneful influence on the work and image of public prosecutors. The nature of the Web dictates the breadth and influence [of such crises].

The characteristics of online public opinion crises involving public prosecutors are: 1. suddenness, 2. destructiveness, and 3. urgency. Up to now, public prosecutors in China have been relatively weak in dealing with online public opinion crises. Essentially, there are four issues involved:

1. Our systems for handling public opinion crises are not sufficiently strong, and we cannot deal with crises promptly; 2. [We] are not good at dealing with the media and lack knowledge of crises and the tools and experience to deal with online opinion crises; 3. [We] are behind in our assessment and analysis of public opinion, leading to passivity in the handling of crises and events; 4. In the Internet age, many of the means of news control that were effective in the past are no longer useful, and many in fact bind our own feet and hands, creating passivity in the handling of crises by the party and the government.

In the new era, how can public prosecutors deal with online public opinion crises, seizing trends in opinion in society and enhancing their ability to channel public opinion, firmly grasping the initiative in public opinion work concerning procuratorial, judicial and public security organs? Specific strategies include:

(A) Strengthening the building of prosecution offices themselves, reducing from the roots the likelihood that online public opinion crises occur. This is the basis.
(B) What the age of the Internet results in for prosecuting authorities is an all-pervasive monitoring (无孔不入的监督). Only by rigidly enforcing the law and making the masses satisfied can the emergence of online public opinion crises be avoided.

2. Increasing understanding of public opinion among employees at public prosecution offices to create correct concepts of public opinion.

For a long time, a misunderstanding has persisted among some employees at public prosecution offices, who believe that having contact with the press is the job of the propaganda department and has nothing to do with them. Knowledge of crisis management is lacking about slow or passive response to sudden-breaking incidents. This creates a vicious cycle and results in more serious consequences.

[Offices] must have correct concepts of public opinion, that openness is preferable to obstruction, that disclosure is preferable to cover-up, that a proactive stance is preferable to a passive one, that preventing fires is preferable to putting them out. [Offices[ need to renew their thinking about public opinion crises, making every moment count in putting out news releases. They must first go online, then hit the newspapers. Get simple reports out first, then more detailed ones. [Offices] must grasp the initiative and take the lead in releasing information online.

3. Paying great attention to the influence the Internet and other media have on social stability, building and perfecting a system of assessment, analysis and early warning for online public opinion crises, and actively strengthening the control of online opinion. This means:

(A) Perceptively finding and compiling relevant information about public opinion.
(B) Correctly discriminating and screening. Ensuring the objectivity of public opinion.
(C) Carrying out tracking of [opinion] activity
(D) Scientific evaluation and analysis. To the highest degree possible, comprehensively and objectively exposing the current state of public opinion and what direction it is trending.
(E) Achieving a system of regular analysis [of public opinion]. Regularly carrying out assessment and analysis of trends in public opinion, making an appropriate analysis of the situation.

4. Formulating a detailed and studied public opinion contingency plan. A detailed and studied contingency plan would mean ensuring that when crisis strikes things can unfold in an orderly manner, enabling the highest degree of initiative. We can reference the “National Contingency Plan for Sudden Breaking Incidents (国家突发公共事件总体应急预案), which sorts crises into four levels, Level One (cataclysmic), Level Two (severe), Level Three (major), Level Four (moderate) . . .

5. Public opinion channeling, and the building of Internet commentator teams.

As mentioned previously, if there is negative news about the procuratorial, judicial and public security organs then perhaps thousands of posts from Web users will “spit saliva” (vent anger), but in many cases this will not accord with the truth. In such situations, it is important for Internet commentators to become involved. Internet commentators can employ reasonable and objective comment and explanation to defuse extreme information online, and they are extremely important in quieting online opinion crises. Creating Internet commentator teams and organizing channeling of online opinion has become a clear and present need.

6. Striving for the support of traditional media and building a press spokesperson system.

When public opinion crises occur, as the situation is not fully known and information is incomplete, this can result in rumor and speculation. [In such cases we] must substantially gain the support of traditional media, using the credibility and authority of the traditional media. While the full situation cannot be grasped in the early stages of a crisis, information should be released quickly and objectively. In this way the people’s right to know can be respected, and the negative effects of the spread of rumors and speculation can be lessened, avoiding disadvantageous public opinion guidance. Quick dissemination of information and effective management of the media also helps to mobilize activity on various fronts, creating widespread understanding, cooperation and support in the handling of a crisis.

[Posted by David Bandurski, August 17, 2009, 2:17pm]