Chinese government crackdown shows that its control over censorship is wearing thin

“Post-deletion” PR: it’s a shady business.
“Post-deletion” PR: it’s a shady business.
Image: AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan
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A recent story by Caixin Magazine about a Chinese government crackdown on two “public relations” firms brought a couple of things to light: that the government no longer has a monopoly on media censorship—and that it’s actually a really good business.

Up until this past July, when the government threw 100 employees in jail, the companies in question were profiting handsomely from the “post deletion” business, the service of making unflattering things printed online simply go away.

According to the report by Caixin, which is one of China’s best-regarded business magazines, these PR firms had developed a few different ways of doing this. One was to befriend search engine administrators who could tweak search results so that a keyword would fail to generate results—meaning, all the articles in which the keyword appeared simply wouldn’t show up. But the best way to censor negative news about their clients was to buy off the reporters’ bosses. PR firms regularly bribed news editors to take down articles that they or their colleagues had commissioned in the first place.

And as this business turned out to be quite lucrative—one nervous government official paid the PR firm Yage Times 500,000 yuan ($80,400) for a single deletion project—these PR firms had begun branching out. Their new line of business, reported Caixin, assigned employees to troll websites looking for negative news and, once they found some, to contact the relevant companies, citizens or government officials and conveniently offer them their services. But when finding articles proved to be just too much work, these firms started generating the bad press themselves, essentially turning the already crooked post-deletion industry into one of straight-up blackmail.

While it is unclear why the government launched the July crackdown, Caixin indicated that local government officials had been availing themselves of post-deletion services, which could possibly have something to do with it given the recent crackdown on corruption. An unnamed employee from Yage Times told the magazine that an estimated 60% of the company’s profits came from government officials in small cities, as well as from police officers.

They’ll have no recourse now that the government has stamped out these types of services—for a time, at least. But as long as the government requires online media companies to enforce its elaborate censorship dragnet, this PR model is bound to surface again.