On April 28, 2005, Ma Zhichun, the head of the External Propaganda Division of the Shuqian Propaganda Department in Shuqian City, Jiangsu Province, received yet one more title Internet commentator.
In his office on the 7th floor of the Shuqian municipal building, Ma proudly showed the reporter his "Certificate for Internet Commentator." The certificate is made of sandalwood and looks very delicate. The associate director of the Shuqian Propaganda Department officially presented him with this two-year-term certificate, making Ma one of the first Internet commentators in Shuqian City.
On the same day, the associate director issued another 25 certificates, establishing the first team of Internet commentators in Shuqian City.
The team, called the "News Propaganda Team," was put together from Shuquian City’s propaganda system. Ma explained: "The 26 Internet commentators come from various government organizations, including the city propaganda department, the propaganda organs of various districts and counties of Shuqian City, as well as various departments of the municipal government. Most of them are either news heads or spokespersons themselves."
Instead of recruiting from the general public, the government referred the Internet commentators internally. Then the Department of Propaganda scrutinized them. At the beginning of this year, in accordance with the requirements of the city propaganda department, the propaganda organs and the various departments of the municipal government recommended over 60 candidates.
"Understanding the [government’s] policies, having a good knowledge of [communist] theory, being politically reliable, and having solid technical skills are the requirements for the commentators," Ma said. "Additionally, the candidates must be familiar with the Internet, have strong interest in obtaining information from the Internet, and preferably know the technologies well." Probably realizing that he met the "criteria," Ma felt a little abashed. Putting the certificate back in his drawer, Ma smiled and explained, in a humble way, that it was not particularly strict, since he was offered this title.
From his resume, however, Ma must have been a good candidate for the title of Internet Commentator—not quite 40 years old, a college graduate, and an editor for the Shuqian Daily newspaper before becoming the head of the External Propaganda Division. As a media and propaganda veteran, Ma is used to browsing the news on the Internet. After meeting with the reporters in Shuqian City and exchanging business cards, Ma is anxious to go back and search for the news that the reporters have written. This way, Ma will be able to talk with these journalists about their reports.
Mr. Lu Ruchao, the associate general secretary of the Shuqian Propaganda Department, is another Internet commentator within the department. Lu used to be a police officer. Twenty-four years old, Lu loves to chat on the Internet. "I am a regular visitor to the chat rooms of Shuqian," Lu said. "Chat rooms attract a lot of people and are important for propaganda. As commentators, we should pay a lot of attention to them," he added.
According to the "Suggestions for Internet Commentary Work in Shuqian City," the city will form the "Office for the Administration of Internet Commentaries" and the "Department for the Internet News Administration" to manage the team of Internet commentators, hold regular meetings for news selection, and conduct year-end evaluation of Internet commentators’ work as a reference for their year-end bonuses and awards.
The Department of Propaganda will also conduct systematic training for the Internet commentators. The curriculum includes Marxist doctrines on news, propaganda strategies and policies of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), knowledge of Internet news propaganda, and the status of the domestic and international development of Internet media.
"The Key Is to Gain the Upper Hand"
"Develop (the Internet) proactively, reinforce the administration, eliminate the harmful and strengthen the beneficial and take advantage of the Internet for our purposes." These are the guiding principles for the Internet commentators. At the ceremony for the founding of the Internet commentator team, Mr. Zhang Fenglin, the associate director of the Shuqian Propaganda Department, told the audience, "In this information age and the Internet era, it has become an important topic and urgent matter to gain the upper hand in the Internet media."
Speaking of this, both Ma and Lu have the same understanding: "The key is to gain the upper hand."
In fact, even before the Internet commentator team was formed, Ma and his colleagues at the Propaganda Department already realized how important the "upper-hand" was.
In July 2004, Shuqian City launched a campaign to establish an "Honest and Clean Government" and encouraged the general public to participate.
During the subsequent two campaigns, 2,476 officials were probed in Shuqian, with 10 officials being publicly criticized, 248 privately counseled and reminded of their problems, and 12 fired or removed from their posts. In addition, 17 officials were assessed as being unqualified or barely qualified, and 16 were found to be unsatisfactory or barely satisfactory.
All of a sudden, everyone was talking about the campaign in Shuqian. As an official at the Shuqian Business and Administration Bureau recalled, "On my way home, people were talking about it. But most of the comments were negative. People were discussing how corrupt the officials had become." Similar comments were quickly spread over the Internet.
Instructed by the Propaganda Department, Ma Zhichun, who did not carry the title of "Internet Commentator" then, promptly clarified the situation regarding the "negative comments." Meanwhile, the staffs of the different propaganda organs continuously published a number of articles discussing the campaign.
"Finally we clarified people’s misunderstandings, and advanced our influence, which is beneficial to our work," said Ma.
During the city government’s various campaigns, including "Industry Breakthrough" and "Recommendation and Election by the Public," Ma and other propaganda officials faced the Internet users with diverse opinions and organized a dozen Internet forums using the identity of "ordinary" Internet users.
"Our Internet commentaries and Internet analysis and surveillance is very effective in guiding the direction of the media," Ma concluded. "Even foreign Internet users were logged on." According to the data from the Office for Foreign Propaganda, in January 2005 alone, more than 3,000 international Internet users posted comments on the subjects that Ma introduced.
"Internet commentators always guide the direction of media as ‘ordinary’ Internet users. This is particularly important, because it is a very effective means," Ma stressed. According to the official rules for Internet commentaries, unless it’s an emergency situation or an extremely important topic, the Internet commentators are not allowed to reveal their true identities.
In the Internet chat rooms, the young Mr. Lu Ruchao carries out the same "media guidance" job. Recently, Lu noticed in the chat rooms that some Internet users complained that the police in Shuqian were too arrogant and tyrannous.
Some commented, "They drive police cars. Their sirens annoy half of the Shuqian City." Following the posting, many messages criticized the police.
In response to the critics, Lu quickly posted a follow-up note, "Setting off the sirens is means of carrying out their duties. We should not get down on the police because of this." Lu argued: "We police are risking our lives to carry out our jobs. How can they curse us? I would certainly reverse the direction of the media." Lu became emotional while talking.
"Other media organizations often look up to Shuqian City," Ma exclaimed. According to ALEXA, the world website ranking system, "Shuqian Online" is ranked 16,022 out of over 100 million websites. Among all the cities in Jiangsu Province, it is second only to Wuxi. "It demonstrates that Shuqian attracts a lot of attention. But honestly, there are very few positive comments." Ma pointed out, "The duty of Internet commentators is to provide an internal guidance to the direction of media in a proactive manner, and strive to maintain Shuqian’s image."
According to the "Suggestions for Internet Commentary Work in Shuqian City," the Shuqian Internet commentator team will "closely follow the important strategies and official work of the municipal government, carry out organized Internet propaganda, selectively publish Internet comments on important issues, and guide the Internet media in the right direction." In addition, regarding hot public issues, the goal is to avoid "agitating through the media, causing confusion, fueling the flames, disturbing people’s minds, and worsening the situation."
"A National Strategy"
While answering the journalist’s questions, Ma’s phone rang. It was from a colleague in Suzhou City. "They’re calling me to learn how we perform our Internet commentary work. Suzhou is establishing teams of Internet commentators as well." Ma explained right after he hung up.
In fact, Shuqian is not the first city to have Internet commentaries. In Jiangsu Province, Nanjing and Wuxi already formed their Internet Commentary systems independently last year.
Last January, the government of Jiangsu Province held a meeting for Internet administration. As was stressed in the meeting, "we must reinforce the administrative work of the Internet in our province with the highest political responsibility, use determination in combating harmful information, and strengthen the leadership in surveying and guiding the Internet media."
As one of the meeting attendees, Ma said, the spirit of an official document was conveyed at the meeting, requiring every city and region to strengthen the guidance of Internet media. The idea of establishing Internet commentator teams was also proposed at the meeting. "So we’re certainly not the ones who initiated the Internet commentary work. This is a national strategy," Ma said.
Unlike other regions in the province, the Internet commentator team in Shuqian is composed of the staff of the propaganda system. As a result, compared to the Internet commentators in other regions who are recruited from the public, Shuqian’s team, Ma believes, is obviously easier to manage. "They are politically reliable, so everyone can work independently."
After searching on the Internet, one will surely be convinced that it’s a "national strategy" as Ma described.
According to the search results, the Dajiang website in Jiangxi Province began to recruit Internet commentators at the beginning of the year and completed their recruitment in April. "A group of politically qualified, news conscious Internet users with good language skills has taken on the important duty of publishing news commentaries and guiding the direction of media."
Recently in Quanzhou City of Fujian Province, the Department of Propaganda, Quanzhou Evening News, and Quanzhou Communications Inc. jointly recruited 20 "Internet news commentators." In a few short days, 60 people applied. In Quanzhou City, the Internet commentary work is under way under the guidance of the relevant government departments.
"More and more regions will begin to recruit Internet commentators, while many regions have already begun to operate without making it public," another official at the Shuqian Propaganda Department commented.
At the ceremony for the founding of the Internet commentator group, Zhang Fenglin, the associate director of the Suqian Propaganda Department in Suqian City, passed on official messages to the new commentators, "You must take full advantage of the Internet, provide timely guidance, proactively carry out the work of Internet commentaries, effectively influence the media on the Internet, and make the Internet a new frontier of ideological work."
"In terms of the Internet commentary work, we are surely not the first, and will not be the last either," Ma concluded.
The Road to Internet Media
Government leaders and the Party are paying more and more attention to the value of Internet news and media, which becomes not only an important channel for Party and government officials to get information, but also a good tool for monitoring the media.
It is estimated that there are currently over 100 million Internet users in China. These people have a relatively higher education and are eager to learn about what’s going on and the hot issues of the society.
Min Dahong, a research professor at the News and Propaganda Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, indicates that the influences, the social status, the level of political recognition, and the reporting ability by China’s Internet media clearly demonstrate that it has become one of the mainstream media in China. Internet BBS provides the ordinary citizens, including the socially disadvantaged and the marginalized groups, with a platform to have their voices heard, Ma continues. The unprecedented vigor of Internet opinions has formed such tremendous media pressure that no government organs or public figures can afford to ignore them.
The unique advantages of Internet media include an extensive network, timeliness, openness, sharing, and interactivity. This makes it an important ideological forefront, commented People’s Daily, an official newspaper of the central government, in its 2004 year-end issue.
Internet commentators must understand, as a propaganda scholar pointed out, that because of China’s special situation, Internet media cannot be taken as regular public opinions and public sentiment, but must be fine-tuned. Reasonable tuning is beneficial to guiding the direction of the media and public opinions.
"However, one cannot take Internet expression as the enemy of a harmonious media environment, or even use it as the excuse for influencing the media." The scholar continues, "Under free Internet environments, various information constantly flows. The information flow itself can become a process of filtering bad information and retaining good information, with truly good information eventually being able to flow through."
"The guidance of Internet media is necessary, but it must be performed under the condition of maintaining the environment of free information flow," commented the scholar. "Government guidance should be taken in the form of having true identity, i.e., publicizing the spokespeople, to clarify the truth and official positions," he said.
The Internet commentators do have their own working styles and approaches. Will they print the prestigious title of "Internet Commentator" on their business cards after receiving the certificates? When asked this question, an official at the Propaganda Department of Shuqian City thought a little bit, and smiled, "Probably not."
The article was translated and edited based on a publication in Southern Weekly, which belongs to the Southern Metropolitan Newspaper Group, on May 19, 2005. The article was rescinded from the website a few days after it was posted.