CHINA: China hires Net squad to sway opinion

Undercover group of commentators working for the government will post on blogs and Internet bulletin boards as 'ordinary netizens'

The Times of India
Friday, May 20, 2005

Beijing -- China has formed a special force of undercover online commentators to try to sway public opinion on controversial issues on the Internet, a newspaper said on Thursday.

China has struggled to gain control over the Internet as more and more people gain access to obtain information beyond official sources. The country has nearly 100 million Internet users, according to official figures, and the figure is rising.

A special force of online commentators had already been operating in Suqian city in the eastern coastal province of Jiangsu since April, the Southern Weekend said.

Their job was to defend the government when negative comments appeared on Internet bulletin boards and chatrooms, the weekly quoted local officials as saying. Suqian cityís propaganda department recruited the commentators from among government officials, the weekly said, adding that they must "understand (government) policies, be versed in (political) theories and be politically reliable". "They will guide public opinion as ordinary netizens. This is both important and effective," Ma Zhichun, one of the recruited commentators, was quoted as saying.

Zhan Jiang, dean of journalism at China Youth University for Political Sciences, did not approve of Internet special forces writing anonymously on the Internet.

"Itís okay if they voice their opinions on the government websites as officials, but it is suspicious if they do it this way," Zhan said. "Itís not good for the natural expression of public opinion."

But city governments in at least three provinces were recruiting online commentators, the weekly said.

"We are not the first and won't be the last (to have online commentators). The whole nation is playing the same game," Ma was quoted as saying.

The Communist Partyís top disciplinary and supervision body trained 127 officials for such jobs last year to "strengthen Internet propaganda on its anti-corruption undertaking", the weekly said.

Beijing has created a special Internet police force believed responsible for shutting down domestic sites posting politically unacceptable content, blocking some foreign news sites and jailing several people for their online postings.

In March, bulletin boards operated by the countryís most prominent universities were blocked to off-campus Internet users as part of the campaign to strengthen ideological education of college students.