Coming across the message “this page cannot be displayed” while browsing the Internet is a common experience for Chinese netizens, and is often a sign the content was removed by Internet censors. The practice is known as “post-deleting,” and a recent inside account reveals how the industry has boomed.
Like most things in China, the dubious practice of deleting posts straddles both business and officialdom, according the report in Beijing-based Century Weekly on Feb. 18. This gray economy is controlled by public relations companies, website managers, and Party officials tasked with monitoring the Internet.
Also known as “Internet crisis public relations companies,” post-deleting firms serve private businesses as well as officials. One such company, Beijing Qihang Internet Public Relations, explains on its website that certain online posts must be deleted because “many well-known enterprises spend large amounts of money on establishing their corporate images. If they do not take action to remove negative articles, they could find themselves in a deadly crisis.”
Beijing Qihang is able to remove any online article that can be found using Baidu, China’s largest search engine, as well as cached screenshots of the offending webpages stored on Baidu servers.
Deleting an article costs up to tens of thousands of yuan, and blocking a search term can cost up to 1 million yuan (US$160,000), according to Century Weekly.
However, with many anonymous netizens now using the Internet as a platform to report acts of corruption, Chinese officials have become the main clients for these censorship companies.
Web-scrubbing company Yage Time Advertising Ltd. said in the report that 60 percent of its revenue came from officials in small- and medium-sized cities, most of whom were police chiefs and county governors.
Gu Tengda, Yage Time’s founder, reportedly told his salesmen during a training session, “Each of your business deals should be worth at least 500,000 yuan (US$80,000).” A former high-ranking manager disclosed that the company turned a profit of 50 million yuan (US$8 million) in 2011.
Mr. Zhang, an employee at a business in the same industry, 306 Internet Brand Consulting, said in an interview with the Chinese International Business Times that the company provides long-term services for its customers. “Prices depend on the difficulty of the job. It’s not difficult to delete news from most news sites, but deleting news or posts from financial news websites and forums often costs more. We also offer the service of modifying the original news and releasing positive information on our customers,” Zhang said.
According to Zhang, the post-deleting business began to boom in 2007 and peaked in 2010, but has since slowed down. “This industry is still profitable. It is really competitive in large cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou. However, the market is also bright in small- and medium-sized cities.”
Research by Howard Feng. Translation by Hsin-Yi Lin. Written in English by Tan Shu Yan.