The practical aspects of directing Internet opinion.

Nanfang Weekend (China)

(As translated by a blogger named “ESWN”)
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 resumé 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
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
“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
“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
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
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.”

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