Arts, Culture & Media

If you like killing time on social networks, China has a job for you

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Carlos Barria/Reuters

A man talks on the phone as he surfs the internet on his laptop at a local coffee shop in downtown Shanghai.

Do you like your time on Facebook or Twitter? Do you need a good job? It might be time to consider a career as an “Internet public opinion analyst" for the Chinese government.

There are now roughly 2 million people in China who work as public opinion analysts, and the market for new jobs is growing by 50 percent every year. Most of the analysts work for various government departments, but private firms are now joining the race, too.

The analysts are different from the “50-Cent Party," the online censors who are responsible for shaping public opinion by writing online comments and deleting posts. Instead, they use computer software to monitor social networking sites, collect opinions and attitudes, and report them to decision-makers.

Secretary-General Zhu Hua, the head of the Public Opinion Monitoring Unit that's affiliated with the People's Daily government newspaper, says the analysts are there to promote propaganda that will help win the “guerrilla battle” against the background of the rise of “mass microphone era”.

It's all part of what He Qinglian, an economics and sociology scholar, called China's “stability maintenance industry”, designed to help the government tighten its grip over public opinions on the Internet. But if the system is breeding stability, it's also costing the Chinese public a fortune. Government agencies spend huge amounts of public money on opinion monitoring. Very often they subcontract the work to party-affiliated private companies, an expense that ultimately hits taxpayers.

It's obvious that stability maintenance work has turned into an economy of its own. The sector now features government-created market demand, a business model for private companies to serve the government and even a new professional status, which is granted by party-affiliated agents like the Public Opinion Monitoring Unit.

That unit, affiliated with the online version of the People’s Daily government newspaper, was founded in 2008 to build a comprehensive online public opinion monitoring system. It monitors public opinion on government affairs, produces magazines like “Internet Public Opinion” and “Help Leaders Understand the Internet" and launches Internet surveillance platforms and public opinion reports. 

The monitoring system has also become an established career ladder. In an interview with Radio Free Asia, freelance writer Zan Aizong from Zhejiang province described Internet public opinion analysts as the “Senior Fifty-Cent Party" because many public opinion analysts have worked in other government positions before.

“Now the government gives them a comprehensive system of training, certification and official titles, allowing the temporary workers to become full-time employees," Zan said. "The government can also publicly use the stability maintenance fees to build relevant departments and hire people.”

There are also training seminars, like Beijing's Fifth Internet Public Opinion Training Class. The notice lists directors of party and government institutions at all levels as the target audience for the training, a step up from low-level analysts.

And, of course, the training isn't cheap. Applications were recently opened for the course, which is priced at 7,800 yuan — roughly $1,260. The China-based Public Opinion Research Institute estimates that the opinion monitoring services market is worth hundreds of billions yuan. And because its growth is mainly boosted by government demand, the industry has a huge potential market as well.

A version of this story by Michelle Fong was originally published in Chinese on inmediahk.net, a Hong Kong website. It was translated by Jennifer Cheung and republished by our partner Global Voices Online, a community of bloggers from around the world.

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