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The Chinese government is offering to reduce prison sentences for inmates who post pro-Beijing comments on social networks, according to a new study on the Middle Kingdom’s murky censorship regime.

Xiao Qiang, professor at Berkeley’s School of Information and founder of China Digital Times, has acquired and sifted through over 2,600 Communist Party directives sent to website editors over the past decade, according to a New York Review of Books (NYR) piece (via TechInAsia).

Some of these censorship orders – which range from a few lines to several pages long – were apparently obtained from micro-blogging sites and internet forums while others were sent to Xiao by disaffected web editors.

They cast an interesting light on China’s vast censorship apparatus, most notably on the “parallel task” of guiding public opinion towards pro-government sentiment.

The presence of “fifty centers” – netizens who agree to post positive comments about the authorities in return for fifty Chinese cents per post – has been known about for some years. Provincial propaganda offices also employ staff to post positive comments.

New tactics go even further.

“By now there are commercial enterprises that contract for comment work. Even prisons do it; prisoners can earn sentence reductions for producing set numbers of pro-government comments,” NYR’s Perry Link writes.

The study reveals a government acutely aware of the power of social media, and that state-run media would lose credibility if it didn’t mention events, no matter how potentially damaging to the Party.

Link explained Xiao’s findings in the following passage:

For stories that are acceptable, but only after proper pruning, the operative phrase is “first censor, then publish.” For sensitive topics on which central media have already said something, the instructions may say “reprint Xinhua but nothing more”. For topics that cannot be avoided because they are already being widely discussed, there are such options as “mention without hyping”, “publish but only under small headlines”, “put only on back pages”, “close the comment boxes”, and “downplay as time passes.”

It’s worth pointing out that, partly thanks to the experience of seeing their own posts deleted before their eyes, China’s netizens are getting increasingly wise to government censorship. However, in real terms, those participating regularly online are probably still only a fraction of the total population, as a recent study claimed.

That research also found that fewer than 15 per cent of active Sina Weibo accounts feature original posts and over half were inactive or zombie accounts. ®

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