Web 'opinion analyst' class may draw journalism grads, but some are wary
Work in new field may appeal to fresh journalism graduates, but some are wary of colluding in web censorship or propagandising for the party
A joint initiative by People's Daily and the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security to provide accredited courses for "public opinion analysts" is likely to be welcomed by thousands of mainland journalism graduates struggling to find a job. But the move is raising unease in some quarters amid Beijing's heightened controls over the internet.
A unit of People's Daily Online specialising in public-opinion studies recently began recruiting students for the first class for accredited opinion analysts.
Students are charged 3,980 yuan (HK$5,030) for a five-day course plus 3,920 yuan for exams and accreditation.
Announcing the programme in September, the vice-president of People's Daily Online, Luo Hua , said that as the internet had gained such a prominent role in the interaction between the authorities and the public, its significance had drawn greater attention from government.
"So studying the public reaction to certain issues in the press has become a highly sophisticated and demanding job that only trained professionals are capable of doing," Luo said.
As part of its efforts to control the internet, the central government employs thousands of people to post comments online that are favourable to the Communist Party or reflect Beijing's position on global issues. They are known as the "50-centers", an anglicisation of the 0.50 yuan they are rumoured to receive for each positive posting or tweet.
Parents on September 11 wrote an open letter calling on some mainland universities, including Sichuan University, to stop recruiting "opinion analysts" on campus to snoop on fellow students and look for "unconstructive comments".
A student was summoned four times within a day in March by Sichuan University authorities for complaining on his microblog about illicit fees for exam passes.
The student told a blog he was shocked by how closely school authorities were able to follow him online with the help of student spies.
Discussions of the emerging industry have become so contentious that People's Daily Online censored a speech made by one of its managers from the public opinion research unit during a launch ceremony for the accreditation programme.
But according to The Beijing News, Shan Xuegang , a deputy section head of the public opinion studies unit at the People's Daily Online, said the main job for public-opinion analysts was to gather and assess online opinions for decision-makers at government agencies.
The media coverage of the abuse of child workers at unlicensed kilns in Shanxi province in 2007 was a watershed in the development of public-opinion analysis, as mainland authorities were caught unprepared by the overwhelming public reaction on the internet.
Qiao Mu , a communications expert at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said that because of fast-emerging technologies, authorities were barely able to control the internet in the same way as they controlled conventional media.
"Without the help of trained professionals, they might not able to keep up with the pace of information flow over the internet, not to mention make a timely response," Qiao said.
However, he said authorities needed to be careful to avoid a backlash.
Wang Xing , a senior journalism student in Beijing, said that while people like her were experiencing greater difficulty in finding a decent job because of oversupply, the fees for the accredited classes were too expensive for a college graduate like her.
She said she and her classmates were also worried about the perception that the public-opinion analysts colluded with censors in manipulating public opinion.
"I don't want to end up as a 50-center after spending four years studying journalistic impartiality and objectivity."