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China's Guangdong to hire 10,000 "online public opinion guides"

March 1, 2012

Media feature by BBC Monitoring on 29 February

Guangdong, known as China's most open and reform-oriented province,
has announced that it will recruit 10,000 people during the next year
to monitor and guide public opinion on the internet.

Zhu Mingguo, Guangdong's deputy party chief, made the announcement at
the fifth session of the 12th congress of the Guangdong Provincial
Federation of Trade Unions on 20 February.

The 10,000-strong team of "online public opinion guides" will "further
propagandize trade union work, strengthen the analysis and research on
public opinion, and play a role in guiding, educating and serving the
workers," the official Guangzhou Daily newspaper said.[1]

The authorities are concerned about online opinions because villagers
and migrant workers protesting against corruption and injustices are
increasingly using the internet to voice their grievances.

But critics say the latest measures to control online expressions are
counterproductive and have tarnished Guangdong's reformist image.


Officials "cannot lose their voice"

The recruitment of "online public opinion guides" is part of a series
of measures by Guangdong's official trade union to curb labour unrest,
which also include sending thousands of union cadres into businesses
to help organize collective bargaining and mediate in wage disputes.

In the era of the internet and microblogs, "everyone is a news
spokesperson, and everyone can act as a journalist," Zhu Mingguo was
quoted as saying.

"The younger generation of workers all understand the internet, and
trade union cadres must understand it, too," he said.

"When there are problems, [officials] cannot lose their voice, and
silence or confused talk will only make things worse," he stressed.


"Fifty-cent party"

Guangdong's new online initiative attracted criticism on the internet,
especially on the Twitter-like Weibo microblogging platform.

"They are openly recruiting 50-cent party members," said a typical
Weibo post.[2]

The "50-cent party" is a pejorative term for people hired by the
government to post comments favourable towards official policies in an
attempt to sway online public opinion. Fifty cents is reported to be
the amount paid by the authorities for every pro-government post.

This kind of online deception will ultimately prove counterproductive,
Shandong-based blogger "Tajzz" wrote in his blog hosted by the
Guangming Daily website.[3]

"If the purpose of hiring public opinion guides is to 'call a stag a
horse', such initiatives can never 'put out the fire' but will only
add to the trouble," he said.

"The more you want to cover up, the messier the situation will become.
It will make it more difficult for the government to handle the
problem," he concluded.


Reformist image tarnished

It is not unusual in China for a local government to use such tactics
to sway online opinion, but Guangdong's latest move was a far cry from
the liberal and reformist image it had been nurturing.

Zhu Mingguo, who made the controversial announcement, was seen as a
liberal official after making a positive impression for his role in
solving the bitter land dispute in Wukan village last December.

The protests in Wukan, which lasted for months and attracted
international media attention, were halted after Zhu admitted that
some of the villagers' requests were reasonable and promised a "fair
and open" investigation.[4]

It was "perplexing" that such a popular official was now giving orders
to control public opinion, Taiwan's United Daily News newspaper
commented.[5]

Zhu's "liberal image has suffered a drastic decline", independent
Chinese commentator Liu Yiming wrote on the Deutsche Welle website.[6]

Liu pointed out that, though Guangdong officials' handling of the
Wukan protests was commendable, they acted the way they did because
they were under huge pressure from public opinion.
"Had it not been for the strong pressure from public opinion, Zhu
Mingguo would not have visited Wukan to negotiate with villagers'
representatives in person and accept their requests," he wrote.

"From the Wukan incident, the Guangdong authorities once again learned
about the critical role of online public opinion," he said.

This may explain why Guangdong is now seeing the need to expand its
army of official internet commentators.


[1] http://gzdaily.dayoo.com/html/2012-02/21/content_1617805.htm

[2] www.weibo.com/1496810777/y6Wkm6TSA

[3] http://blog.gmw.cn/blog-47187-405457.html

[4] http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2011-12/31/c_131336194.htm

[5] http://udn.com/NEWS/MAINLAND/MAI1/6921255.shtml

[6] www.dw.de/dw/article/0,,15758262,00.html


Source: BBC Monitoring research 29 Feb 12

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