After Wukan, 'Opinion Makers' Wanted

Authorities seek to influence online opinion following a standoff in a southern Chinese village.
2012-02-24
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Chinese netizens at an Internet cafe in Quanzhou, south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Sept. 29, 2011.
Chinese netizens at an Internet cafe in Quanzhou, south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Sept. 29, 2011.
ImagineChina

Violent protests by Wukan villagers last December against unscrupulous land grabs and rigged elections look set to lead to greater online supervision by Guangdong provincial authorities, who apparently fear that the rebellious village is fast becoming a model for unrest elsewhere, analysts said.

Guangdong's government will build a force of 10,000 "public opinion guides" during the next year, deputy provincial leader Zhu Mingguo told a conference of labor officials on Monday.

Zhu told delegates that they should strive to keep up with a Web-savvy generation of younger Chinese workers to ensure that the voice of the ruling Communist Party continues to be heard in an age of social networking, the Guangzhou Daily newspaper reported.

The move would take opinion formation and education to the next level, Zhu reportedly told the meeting, and "guide society to an ardent love of the Party and of socialism."

Repeated calls to the Guangzhou municipal government and Party propaganda department went unanswered during office hours on Thursday.

Guangzhou-based Internet commentator Ye Du said the report had sparked considerable discussion in some quarters of the Chinese Internet, with posts announcing that "the 50-cent army is hiring again," in a reference to netizens' satirical name for the government's battalion of paid opinion-makers.

"The fact that the villagers of Wukan kept going with the struggle to protect their rights has set a huge example to rural communities and petitioners all over China," Ye said. "In recent days, there have been a number of demonstrations by large numbers of retired military personnel who have used the same methods in their petitioning."

"Now that rural residents know how to use the Internet and microblogs as channels to release information, the authorities must boost their workforce by hiring even more people to curb them," he said.

"They want to prevent negative news from getting out and circulating."

Rare concessions

The requisitioning of rural land for lucrative property deals by cash-hungry local governments sparks thousands of "mass incidents" across China every year, but many result in violent suppression, the detention of the main organizers, and intense pressure on the local population to comply with the government's wishes.

In the case of Wukan, however, the standoff with armed police who encircled the village sparked rare concessions following an investigation by the provincial government of Guangdong, which concluded that most of the villagers' demands and complaints were fair.

According to Ye, the government's strategy is now focused on influencing public opinion rather than on the impossible task of censoring every microblog posting on the massively popular Sina Weibo service.

"News gets out on Sina Weibo very fast indeed," Ye said. "Within one or two minutes, your news can reach several million people, and the authorities can't keep up with blocking all of it."

Guangzhou-based blogger Wen Yunchao, known by his online nickname Beifeng, said he was doubtful however that China's official labor union would succeed in using such opinion formers and the online mediators also proposed by Zhu to curb the wave of strikes and labor disputes now hitting former southern Chinese boomtowns.

"Their hiring strategy doesn't seem that different from before," Wen said. "Unless the government pays out a lot of money to hire really good writers who pack a real punch, this isn't going to work."

He said a better way of defusing labor unrest would be freedom of expression for Chinese workers.

"The official labor union is a bit like the National People's Congress; it's a rubber stamp ... and unlikely to be of any real use to workers trying to protect their rights," he said.

Reported by Fung Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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