As leaders throughout China’s vast bureaucracy get more proactive about the business of agenda setting as a complement to information control, a change now encompassed by President Hu Jintao’s official buzzword “public opinion channeling,” or yulun yindao (舆论引导), one favored tactic has been to train and deploy teams of “internet commentators” (网络评论员). These government-hired online eyes and ears, who scour the web for potential public opinion flash points and make pro-government posts to spin the conversation, have been popularly dubbed the “fifty-cent party,” originally a reference to the half-yuan they were said to be paid per post.
Internet commentators, wangpingyuan for short, have now been trained up and used by all sorts of government units at all levels, and they are one of the most open dirty secrets of Internet control in China, drawing scorn and derision from Chinese Internet users.
Local officials who respond to the central leadership’s call for more active “channeling” of information by deploying their own “commentator” teams sometimes advertise them without shame. The task, after all, is closely linked to the paramount work of “stability preservation” in a society where social tensions are running red hot — and stability preservation is the number-one thing on the minds of local officials in China these days, thanks to tough mandates from leaders at the central and provincial levels. Internet commentators, for example, figured prominently in the provincial government response to riots at Weng’an in Guizhou Province back in 2008.
Nevertheless, discussion of the “fifty-cent party” in the media remains somewhat sensitive, and sharing information on the nitty gritty of commentator work and training is generally out of bounds.
But the news on May 18 that Guangzhou’s corps of “city inspectors,” the camo-clad enforcers of urban order particularly among the rural migrant population in China’s cities (and a key component of “stability preservation”), would likely be getting its own team of internet commentators brought a few interesting comments from China’s media last week.
The original story — independently reported by Guangzhou Daily, Southern Metropolis Daily, China News Service, the Information Times and Shanghai’s Xinmin Evening News — quoted the head of Guangzhou’s City Inspectors Committee (广州城管委), Li Yangui (李廷贵), as saying at an awards ceremony that the Guangzhou committee would build a system of internet commentators, “working together with relevant departments to strengthen processing and monitoring of online public opinion.”
The goal, Li said (invoking the old media control buzzword of “guidance”), would be to “track and analyze online public opinion, preventing the spread of undesirable information and thereby generating positive guidance of public opinion.”
The cheekiest response came the following day from China Youth Daily , with columnist Liang Fafu (梁发芾) expressing support for China’s proposed “real-name registration system,” which would effectively end anonymity on China’s web.

In order to deal with negative online information and channel public opinion, a number of government departments have set up special internet commentator teams as well as part-time teams, and this is no longer a secret. It’s my view that we should make information about internet commentators completely open and transparent, instituting a system of real-name registration for internet commentators making online posts. The government has touted the real-name system for the web all along, and we should begin with internet commentators.

Writing in Guangdong’s official Nanfang Daily, Xun Zhi (迅之) agreed that city inspectors in Guangzhou “must work harder in the area of public opinion channeling,” but went on to promote something different altogether — complete openness of information about the actions of city inspectors.

Relying solely on favorable information from the side of city inspection departments will not suffice to change the negative impact of a whole host of unfavorable incidents involving city inspectors as they emerge on the Internet. How might city inspectors in Guangzhou channel online opinion in such a way that they are truly on the [information] offensive? I believe that first and foremost they need to build a system for the public release of information, so that citizens can learn information about the work of city inspectors in Guangzhou on a timely basis. So long as the release of information is permitted by policy, it should be made public, and through this process of openness the people might gradually develop a sense of trust about the work of city inspectors.

Writing at Jiangsu’s Changjiang Daily, Yin Guo’an (殷国安) brought the “guidance” and control aspects of Li Yangui’s remarks into sharper relief.

[According to Li’s statement] these expert and part-time teams [of internet commentators] must also serve a function of ‘channeling and stopping’: they must prevent the spread of undesirable information and create positive guidance of public opinion on the web. This means two things. First, “building an embankment,” preventing the spread of undesirable information. Second, “channeling,” or leading online public opinion to the point of correct guidance. This is a problem.
First of all, what does undesirable information mean, and what is positive public opinion? Given the same information, ordinary people might say it is “good information” while officials say it is “undesirable information.” . . . Should we suppose that “preventing undesirable information” means stopping the spread of information that reflects poorly on the work of city inspectors? Is “positive public opinion” just about not criticizing city inspectors, but simply singing their praises? If there are no standards, what can internet commentators possibly do? . . .

The final line of Yin’s editorial suggested the whole notion of “public opinion channeling” was misguided in its understanding of the proper relationship between the government and the public.
“Officials have this stubborn condition whereby they must always try to instruct the public and guide ordinary people,” Yin wrote. “In fact, the opposite is true. It’s the officials who should listen to the opinions of the people and handle matters according to their wishes. Many people have taken this most basic of principles and turned it on its head.”
Can setting up ‘internet commentator teams’ make Guangzhou’s city inspectors lovable?“, QQ Blog, May 18, 2010

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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