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'Black' PR in China buys internet invisibility
The Telegraph (London) - May 27, 2013
"It does not matter how big or sensitive the story is, we can make it disappear," promised a manager at Yage Times, China's largest and most notorious "black" public relations firm.
Dozens of Chinese officials have been put under investigation in recent months, and Communist Party members at every level are worried. In particular, they fear the internet, where stories about corrupt officials often go viral, putting pressure on the Communist Party to launch a high-profile investigation.
In almost 42 per cent of this year's corruption cases, the public has provided a tip-off, often on the web, according to Zhang Shaolong, an official at the party's discipline unit.
As a result, the market for "black PR" is booming. A quick search showed at least 30 companies have sprung up to offer government officials, shady businessmen and scandal-hit celebrities the chance to wipe their slates clean.
"We recently helped the head of a police bureau in Jieyang, Guangdong, delete a set of stories from the web, but I cannot tell you exactly who it was," said a representative of one black PR firm that sells its services on Taobao, an online marketplace, under the title Geshigoufang.
"We can clean your name from blogs, forums, news websites, Weibo [China's version of Twitter], everything.
"It costs 13,000 yuan ($2173) to have a story deleted from the People's Daily website or from Xinhua.
"It is a bit more expensive because those are government websites.
"Also for the People's Daily you have to show us the webpage you want to disappear and we have to ask the editors there whether it is too risky to delete."
Asked if the company was busy, the employee said: "We have had 313 clients in the last 30 days."
At another black PR firm, named Origin of Brightness, a man who called himself manager Liu said "companies, individuals and government use this as a form of crisis management. It is a good idea to keep those negative stories deeply hidden". He added that business was going "quite well".
At Yage Times, employees scour the internet for incriminating articles and then cold call the parties involved to ask if they require their services. Deleting an article usually entails bribing either an editor at a website or a government official who can send a censorship demand.
Some companies have even gone to the lengths of creating fake government stamps in order to send formal censorship notices.
"The companies call around their connections and ask for deletions," said one editor at Sohu, a Chinese web portal, who asked to remain anonymous.
"The bigger the media, the higher the price, but there is always some bargaining. The editors themselves only get a small share, most of the money goes to the bosses higher up."
Last July, Chinese police raided Yage Times and tried to shut it down, according to Caixin, one of China's most respected business magazines.
Caixin said the previous year, Yage Times had made more than pounds #4.5 million in profit. The company made more than 60 per cent of its money from "government officials" in smaller Chinese cities, "including many police chiefs and county leaders".