By Mareike Ohlberg and Jessica Batke
This article, including a number of sidebar articles and supplemental materials, originally appeared on ChinaFile. The text below does not include illustrations and charts that are part of the full article.
Message Control: How a New For-Profit Industry Helps China’s Leaders ‘Manage Public Opinion’,” a new report from ChinaFile, relies on an analysis of some 3,100 publicly available Chinese government procurement notices related to purchases of products and services to help officials monitor and control public opinion across China between January 2007 and late August 2020.
For-profit companies actively assist the Chinese Communist Party as it works to eliminate one of the main threats to its survival, namely, the thoughts and feelings China’s citizens express about their government.
Chinese authorities want the ability to track, manipulate, or erase online speech. They rely increasingly on technology to enhance the efficacy and scope of censorship and monitoring long performed by government employees.
Governments have begun to depend on commercial enterprises as the sheer volume of online information threatens to overwhelm public sector employees’ capacity to manage it. A wide range of government agencies and departments engage commercial companies to provide public opinion management services—not only propaganda bureaus or police departments but tax bureaus, local courts and prosecutors’ offices, hospitals, and even a Beijing office hosting an international exhibition of horticulture.
Local government agencies seek commercially-provided software, services, and, sometimes, human contractors to monitor online content and manage how and whether it circulates.
Most agencies want to uncover online chatter about their own personnel and policies, tracking commentary on massive numbers of websites and on social media platforms, requiring companies to give them “early warnings” in case of potential “public opinion incidents.”
Government officials explicitly request “Internet Public Opinion Analysts” and “Internet Commenters” from contracted companies, meaning that for-profit firms are providing personnel to government agencies for this sort of work.
Though purchases of systems for domestic monitoring dominate, a number of Chinese government agencies—at the national, provincial, and sometimes even the county level—have solicited services to keep tabs on international public opinion as well.
The emergence of the public opinion service sector offers a glimpse of what techno-authoritarianism might actually look like in practice in China: the Party-state’s use of, and reliance on, private technology companies to manage the volatile interaction between ideas, speech, and society.