China's "50 Cent Army" of commentators who support the ruling Chinese Communist Party line in forums, tweets, and chatrooms are rumored to be paid just cents per comment, but the business of deleting "negative content" on the country's tightly controlled Internet can be far more lucrative—if you are a police officer.
A Beijing police officer surnamed Liu was detained earlier this month for taking bribes from "clients" of 500 to 2,000 yuan (U.S.$80 to $322) per deleted post, which using his police powers he removed directly from websites at the private request of government departments or corporations, official media reported.
The story has sent shockwaves through China's online community, which is increasingly intolerant of government controls over what they can see on the Internet.
According to the online version of the party's Guangming Daily newspaper, Liu graduated in 2006 from the computer department of the Chinese People's Public Security University and started work in the Internet surveillance unit of the capital's police force the same year.
Liu has since made more than one million yuan (U.S. $161,000) in personal income from a lucrative sideline deleting "negative news reports" to order, according to reports on Guangming's website and the Beijing News.
Tip of the iceberg
Media analysts said China's Great Firewall—a complex system of blocks, filters, and human censorship that limits most Chinese users to a government-approved version of cyberspace—is also seen as an excellent opportunity to make money by many in Chinese law enforcement agencies.
"This sort of thing is very common; it's everywhere," Gan Lin, editor-in-chief of the online news site Duxun, said.
"They have the power to control the Internet, so they turn this power into a tool for making money," Gan said.
"This is a classic example of rent-seeking by those in power."
He said Liu's case was likely only the tip of the iceberg.
Overseas blogger and rights activist Wen Yunchao, known online by his nickname Beifeng, said much of the material that does get deleted from Chinese websites is political in nature.
"The Chinese authorities are very strict when it comes to controlling negative content that is political in nature," Wen said.
"They aren't very strict at all about controlling pornography or violent content."
Wen, who is currently a visiting scholar at New York's Columbia University, said such controls have severely impeded social progress in China.
"If there is no protection for people's right to freedom of expression and publication, as a basic social and political right, then we have lost a key mechanism in society that can provide a check or balance on political power," he said.
"This leads to political and financial elitism, corruption, arrogance, and concentration of power [in the hands of the few]," Wen said.
"The results can be seen everywhere [in China] today."
According to the Beijing News, Liu will likely stand trial at the Fengtai district in Beijing on charges of "accepting bribes," but no further information on the case has been made public.
Earlier this month, China's official news agency Xinhua announced a certified training course for its "50 Cent Army" of Internet propagandists who are paid to manipulate public opinion by posting and retweeting comments favorable to the government.
The first part of the Xinhuanet course on the "management of online public opinion" is scheduled to begin on Thursday, in a bid to train large numbers of people to write comments supportive of the government and its policies.
The exact numbers of people grouped under the "50-cent army" is unknown, and many are employed by separate organizations under different job titles.
But their role is to try to swing the opinions of China's increasingly frustrated netizens in the direction of the status quo, posting pro-government opinions and trying to deflect criticism and dissent among China's 600 million Internet users.
China has cracked down on a number of high-profile journalists and tweeters in recent months, as the administration of President Xi Jinping tightens controls on online expression.
On Sept. 1, 2013, China's highest judicial authorities issued a directive on Sept. 1 criminalizing online "rumor-mongering," in a move widely seen as targeting critical comments and negative news on the country's hugely popular social media sites.
Last year saw increasing levels of official control over freedom of expression, including a crackdown on criticisms of the government that were merely implied, the Hubei-based rights group Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch said in an annual report last month.
Reported by He Ping for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.