Dirty Business for China’s Internet Scrubbers

A recent Southern People Weekly article translated by CDT revealed the world of official espionage in China: officials bugging rivals to gather ammunition, and allies to assess their loyalty. A report at Caixin describes another weapon in the ambitious official’s arsenal. Former Baidu employee Gu Dengda spun his knowledge of internal complaints procedures and network of tech company contacts into a 50 million yuan business. Yage Time Advertising Ltd. illegally scrubbed unfavorable web content for corporate clients including China Mobile, Pizza Hut, Yoshinoya and automotive joint venture FAW-Volkswagen. Some 60% of the firm’s business, though, came from officials. Eventually, Yage established a content partnership with the Beijing city government’s Qianlong web portal, where it published negative coverage of various companies before seeking payment for taking it down. Gu, along with at least nine others from the internet-scrubbing industry, is now awaiting trial for bribery, among other charges. From Wang Chen, Wang Shanshan, Ren Zhongyuan and Zhu Yishi at Caixin:

As part of Gu’s strategy, dozens of Yage staffers spent the workday surfing the Internet in search of negative news, comments and postings about government officials. Any official whose reputation seemed to be threatened would be contacted and offered Yage’s services as soon as negative information surfaced online.

High season for Yage’s business with local government clients was usually just before the National People’s Congress and China People’s Political Consultative Conference held every March in Beijing. It’s around conference time that officials typically come under attack from whistleblowers. It’s also when these officials are often willing to pay a premium to see negative publicity vanish.

[…] Arrested with Gu was Hu Chunyu, the financial news channel chief at Qianlong, a website tied to state-run media including the Beijing Daily newspaper, the Beijing Radio Station and Beijing TV. The site is managed by the Propaganda Department at the Beijing Municipality’s Communist Party Committee.

A few years after its founding in 2000, Qianlong started outsourcing part of its news production to public relations companies. In 2009, Yage won a more than 100,000 yuan-a-year contract to supply business channel content. Yage also won the right to post and delete articles on that web page.

[…] “We think Qianlong is shameless,” [a] source said. “But you really can’t cross it. It’s still one of the Beijing government’s official propaganda portals.”

Four Baidu employees were fired in July last year for carrying out paid deletions, and three of the four were subsequently arrested. At the time, Marbridge Consulting’s Mark Natkin told The Wall Street Journal that the problem was far more widespread: “There’s no major Chinese Internet company that has been able to completely avoid this sort of thing. It’s just very difficult to police everybody all the time.”