China’s “Black” Public Relations Industry

As a former PR practitioner in China, I’ve heard stories of unethical, underhanded and illegal activities carried out by certain Chinese PR companies many times. A common complaint I heard was the agencies slandering their client’s competition and artfully spreading the attacks on search engines and blogs and portals. But that said, I worked with a few Chinese PR agencies and found them to be incredibly hard-working, industrious, talented and ethical. I never worked (to my knowledge) with agencies in China that dealt in the “black arts” of PR though I heard their stories and have no doubt they’re true.

And now we have documentation. Thanks to commenter t_co for bringing to my attention this intriguing article on just how China’s “black” PR industry operates. This summer the government waged a widespread crackdown, arresting hundreds of practitioners of Internet deletion and shutting down a number of companies that sold clients on their ability to scrub away material on the Internet that they believed harmed their reputations.

Almost everyone knows about the public relations industry, but fewer people know about what in China is referred to as Black PR, the underground internet industry that has evolved with the spread of web 2.0 through China. Black PR firms provide client companies with both post deletion services to help them escape negative news stories, and some also provide placement for soft ads and hit pieces attacking competitors. The top black PR firms can offer these services even for stories posted to China’s most popular news portals.

Getting posts deleted is an exercise in sleaze. One of the original and worst perpetrators was a PR company, now closed down, called Yage Times. Its founder, Gu Dengda, now awaiting trial for bribery and other charges, used to work at Baidu, where he developed a business on the side helping companies scrub posts from Baidu’s search engine and portals. Gu figured out how to game the system at Baidu and began to make serious money. As an accompanying article in Caixin notes,

Gu’s knowledge of Baidu’s website-user rules worked to his advantage. He knew, for example, that the search engine’s around-the-clock complaint department would work with website technicians to quickly remove any posts about which they received a Baidu-user complaint. At that time, blog posts, comments and other data could be scrubbed based entirely on a single complaint.

Moreover, Gu knew how to make direct contact with website administrators and their colleagues. This skill – coupled with his ability to grease palms and cultivate good relations with website staffers – proved to be the key to his business success.

Gu started by charging 800 to 1,000 yuan per deleted post while still employed at Baidu. He would start working his magic after finding an image-conscious customer who wanted something scrubbed from the Internet. He would then file complaints with Baidu about relevant postings, and watch the Web until they disappeared.

Blocking keywords on Baidu requires high-level connections, but Gu did it, probably by bribing Internet management officials outside of the company. It is to the government’s credit that they have cracked down hard on this activity, but it reveals an Internet management system rife with corruption.

Yage is gone, but I suspect there are many other “black” PR companies still in operation. Yage used to boast openly on its website of its ability to block keywords on Baidu. Now, companies that offer such services will probably go underground.

If you want to get a negative article scrubbed from the web, or post fake bad news about your competitors, you still have plenty of options. And while it’s increasingly well-understood that such services are illegal — a Baidu search for “delete posts” now displays a special warning reminding users these services aren’t legal, for example — it’s not likely that much will change if black PR companies can make literally millions in profit, and internet management officials and police are all also onboard the money train.

No way to stop it until the corruption is dug up by its roots. I suggest no one hold their breath.

______________

Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 36 Comments

America is rattled.

Today, after a long day at work, I left the restaurant tired, at 11:40pm. As I turned the corner and walked into the crime infested area of the city, a homeless ‘mud brother’ yelled at me, “Yo! You Chinaman! Your country has no human rights, no democracy, no univesal suffrage, it will never become a superpower! America will not accept a secondary position in the world!’.

Of course as a Chinese men, I’m scared of these mud brothers, so I ran as fast as I could.

But later that night I got to thinking, perhaps that homeless guy’s shout is symptomatic of the general pyschological state of Americans: They are told that ‘China is not supposed to be strong, it’s a dicatorship, its citizens are suppressed, it has no innovation, its product is poor, it’s supposed to crash and burn just like the Soviet Union’. Seeing the opposite happening strikes a huge blow to the psychological dignity of haughty Americans, especially those Democracy-fundamentalists. They struggle to explain, both to each other and to themselves, the rise of this great Oriental nation. When such efforts fail, emotions rise – anger, denial, confusion, jealousy, etc.

Perhaps that mud brother was just a typical American.

March 8, 2013 @ 9:23 am | Comment

Clock, you are wading deeper and deeper into troll territory. Please stick to the subject. And yes, you’re right, all Americans hate China and Chinese people. Idiot.

March 8, 2013 @ 9:25 am | Comment

As for the subject. Well that is just a result of the Chinese people being entrepreneurs – there’s a market for everything.

Nothing they are doing is illegal, let the market place decide, let capitalism flourish!

March 8, 2013 @ 9:37 am | Comment

Similar practices probably take place in countries other than China, with more subtlety, I’m guessing.

March 8, 2013 @ 10:41 am | Comment

Bob, I think you’re probably right, although in the US there’s no bribing of public officials. There probably IS manipulation of comment threads, planted Amazon reviews, etc. But getting posts deleted and keywords blocked, I’ve only heard of that in China.

March 8, 2013 @ 10:59 am | Comment

While the word is applicable in the broadest sense, clearly this isn’t just a corruption problem. Though “a crack down” on such abuses is laudable if sincerely administered, it’s difficult not to see in the government’s reaction a concern over private enterprises usurping the control of information Beijing still reserves for itself. Chinese businesses may be learning their manners from the state when commiting crimes as much as they do when following laws.

March 8, 2013 @ 12:00 pm | Comment

@although in the US there’s no bribing of public officials.

Lobbying is bribery.

March 8, 2013 @ 12:15 pm | Comment

I never said there was no bribing of public officials. I said PR companies don’t bribe officials to get posts deleted.

Lobbying is often sleazy, but it is out there in the open for all to see, and lobbyists/lawmakers who abuse the system have frequently been punished. (Ever hear of Jack Abramoff?) Yes, I think the lobbying system can be corrupt. But that was in no way what my post is about. And your response, Jason, is your typical tu quoque — Look, America is corrupt, too!

March 8, 2013 @ 12:18 pm | Comment

America is corrupt that’s a fact. China is also corrupt that’s also a fact. Of the two, China is worse in term of corruption. Again, that is also a fact in certain dealings of the society. However, the scale of corruption in China, may it be much more widespread than in the U.S. Most of the time stays only in China. However, even the smallest corruption in the U.S political system will have a major effect in the world stage. you know what they say. When America sneezed, the world catched a cold. The recent global crisis was mainly due to corruption ( i know you guys call it greed). It was plain corruption which lasted for a long time. Corporate Lobbyists loby for deregulation which in term created the worst financial devestation in the history of man. Now, tell me how many of those lobbyists/lawmakers got punished?

March 8, 2013 @ 12:31 pm | Comment

@I said PR companies don’t bribe officials to get posts deleted.

Bell Pottinger Private, comes to mind. And more recently, Qorvis Communications.

@And your response, Jason, is your typical tu quoque — Look, America is corrupt, too!

Correcting your mistake does not constitute tu quoque. I never said this situation is unimportant because some other country does it.

March 8, 2013 @ 1:42 pm | Comment

Seriously, given recent hacking headlines, is this news?

Opposite faces, same Sino coinage.

Basically, we are talking about the 666 of the 21st century…..business morality, be it China or Wall Street.
Just that China is lot further down the scale in the sophistication department, and is caught with its pants down a lot more often.

Just wait till it has all the financial instruments presently available to those in the West’s financial landscape.

Then look out for the really big heist.

March 8, 2013 @ 2:41 pm | Comment

Isn’t Bell Pottinger a UK company, Jason? Fill us in about what they did to bribe government officials. I’m curious. And what about Qorvis? They represent some unsavory clients, but what illegal activity did they carry out? But even if you can dig something up, it doesn’t relate to the story about bribing Chinese government officials to delete material on a continuous and systematic basis and making it the very core of your business. Typical distraction, never addressing the actual topic.

March 9, 2013 @ 12:51 am | Comment

@Isn’t Bell Pottinger a UK company, Jason?

Your point is…?

@Fill us in about what they did to bribe government officials. I’m curious. And what about Qorvis?

Both companies uses strategies from influencing and bribing government officials (ie. David Cameron and Bell Pottinger) to influencing US corporate media (ie. Qorvis and Equatorial Guinea) to change public opinions on their clients and in return, big rewards to their clients.

March 9, 2013 @ 2:40 am | Comment

“mud brother” – are you going to let Clock get away with this kind of racism Richard?

March 9, 2013 @ 2:57 am | Comment

“mud brother” – are you going to let Clock get away with this kind of racism Richard?

The guy’s an obvious troll. I’d ban him, but it’s Richard’s blog.

March 9, 2013 @ 3:00 am | Comment

t_co/FOARP, I didn’t see that – thnks for pointing it out. (I often don’t read my own comments.) I will take appropriate action. Clock started off being amusing, now he’s become sinister.

Jason, I mention it’s a UK company because YOU made the comparison to AMERICA. Were either of these companies found to have illegally bribed anyone? About their seeking to influence government or industries or companies — that is exactly what communications companies are hired to do and it is perfectly legal. it becomes “black PR” when they use influence and money to perform illegal acts.

March 9, 2013 @ 3:49 am | Comment

Like I said, this sort of stuff only happens when the social media is a “closed market”. In this regard, Chinese censorship is best not viewed as a tool of political control (which it is, but not with much efficiency) but rather as an indirect economic tariff which coddles Chinese social media sites while hurting Chinese consumers in the internet market.

It’s for that reason why I’m very pessimistic about China’s censorship system–because it ultimately means Chinese social media/consumer internet, which is China’s best hope for getting its voice heard on the 21st-century plane of global discourse and converting its base of 584 million internet users into an unmatched system of soft power–is completely hobbled vis a vis American-led ‘Big 5′ of Twitter, Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple.

Remove the censorship, but keep the protectionism; encourage Chinese social media to become more transparent and more competitive, and let China’s internet users project their voices upon the world–then the problem of anti-China bias in overseas discourse (which is heavy–read any LA Times or WSJ or Reuters or The Atlantic comment board) will be substantially mollified.

March 9, 2013 @ 3:55 am | Comment

To achieve what @17 wants, there has to be a lot less Chinese nationalism in the mix. The Clocks, pug_sters, Jasons who (over)populate overseas discourse arguably expand anti-China bias, or at least contempt for Chinese netizens. It’s remarkable how many commenters on how many media comment boards complain not about China, but about its army of patriotic commenters.

March 9, 2013 @ 5:59 am | Comment

@slim

Don’t link me and pug_ster to ultranationalists, Clock or Red Star for the matter. These extreme prejudicial views on your part only fails to achieve what @17 wants.

March 9, 2013 @ 6:23 am | Comment

If you’re interested, Dr. Katerina Tsetsura does some very interesting work in so-called “media transparency” – look her up. This topic is along the line of what she studies.

March 9, 2013 @ 7:02 am | Comment

Don’t link Red Star with Clock for that matter, either. Clock’s a troll who probably posts without any bona fide intent at all; I think he’s just posting as a satire of what he thinks Chinese ultranationalists actually posts. Hongxing at least posts in good faith.

March 9, 2013 @ 7:43 am | Comment

“To achieve what @17 wants, there has to be a lot less Chinese nationalism in the mix. The Clocks, pug_sters, Jasons who (over)populate overseas discourse arguably expand anti-China bias, or at least contempt for Chinese netizens. It’s remarkable how many commenters on how many media comment boards complain not about China, but about its army of patriotic commenters.”

To be fair, pretty much any discussion thread on any subject that touches on the nationalism of a certain country attracts a horde of cyber-nationalists. Check out any thread on the Falklands issue, Scots independence, or (from 2003-8 ish) the Iraq war, and you’ll see insane nationalism totally out of proportion to actual opinion. Chinese issues are no exception to this.

The problem is not Chinese internet nationalists, its the lack of any other forum where more reasonable voices might come to dominate, forums of the kind that only emerge when politics aren’t dominated by a single party.

March 10, 2013 @ 7:12 pm | Comment

In fact, the more I think about it, the more this comment strikes me as odd. It is the equivalent of:

- The US being ruled by the Democratic-Republican party, which alternates between speeches hinting at reform by ‘Grandpa’ Premier Harry Reid and nationalistic pronunciamentos by President Boehner.

- Johnathan Franzen being imprisoned in Leavenworth for writing articles critical of the government and his wife being confined to her apartment by FBI agents somewhere in Alexandria, VA.

- Sean Hannity, Editor-In-Chief of the Washington Post, regularly urging in editorials that undefined actions be taken in retribution to EU publication of a report on human rights in the US.

- US Educational content being decided by a board headed by Prof. Bill O’ Reilly of Georgetown university, who strongly emphasises the importance of ‘patriotic’ education free of foreign elements such as Darwinism.

- The summit of opposition to the government in the US media coalescing around the L.A. Times, which dared to celebrate Christmas 2012 by suggesting in an editorial that the best Christmas present the US government could give to the American people was full implementation of the consititution, only to be force to replace the editorial with an article praising the heroic leaders of the US, from Lincoln to Wilson to Nixon to Reagan.

- The main opposition to the US government consisting of Alaskan independence leader Todd Palin, Mormon spiritual leader Mitt Romney, the remnants of the ACLU, and parties of strictly local appeal in the Boston Special Administrative Region, none of which have access to the mass media in the rest of the US.

And then complaining about crazed nationalistic Tea Partiers clogging up all discussion about US issues being the real problem with discussion about the US.

March 11, 2013 @ 5:00 pm | Comment

@FOARP: That’s a really clever comparison! But Washington Post as Global Times…?

March 12, 2013 @ 1:35 pm | Comment

If HongXing is posting in good faith, he is criminally wasting his parents’ tuition money on whatever he may be trying to learn overseas. Nothing he’s ever written passes any kind of laugh test.

And Jason, unless you’re a different Jason than the one that’s been here for years, and who embarrassed himself at great length trying to defend the killings of Falun Gong followers as a doctrinal dispute, you definitely belong in the Patriotically (Mis)Educated Angry Youth Hall of Fame.

March 12, 2013 @ 6:42 pm | Comment

@slim: “[Jason] defends the killings of Falun Gong followers”

Serious straw man there.

@ you definitely belong in the Patriotically (Mis)Educated Angry Youth Hall of Fame.

Ad hominem. I hardly sound angry and mis-educated about China’s Qigong Scientific Research Association established in 1980 which has legal right to not renew Qiong organizations (not just Falun Gong) that are deemed unfit.

March 13, 2013 @ 7:16 am | Comment

O/T, but not really since we are talking about public relations. How is Shanghai going to spin its ambition of becoming the financial centre in Asia given what is floating through its CBD?

(The vox pop in HK must be quietly smirking.)

And there are George Romero screen writing possibilities for t_co: invasion of diseased pork the staple in the Chinese diet, digital rumours, weirdly mutated zombies lurching around The Bund searching for bankers to enviscerate, etc.

The script will of course be a metaphor about the dystopian aspect of Xi’s Chinese Dream.

March 14, 2013 @ 2:13 am | Comment

Apol. I forgot. The main characters will be members of an urban guerrilla army of animal liberationists. And there will be a subplot, which can be contracted out to the HH crowd: this whole chain of events was engineered by the US/CIA to realise massive capital flight among Shanghai’s super wealthy.

March 14, 2013 @ 2:32 am | Comment

Unless investors and finance people are leaving Shanghai in droves because of the pigs, I don’t see why it would be connected to its status as a financial hub. As a soft power hub, though, the whole thing is, should we say, problematic.

March 14, 2013 @ 5:55 am | Comment

This is a movie Wukailong. An artistic statement.

We are talking about the emergence of a new niche market. One where we can deploy all the hoary old conventions of the US shock horror flic.

The recent Wei Feng releases didn’t generate a yuan.
http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/evanosnos/2013/03/lei-feng-communist-china-failed-films.html

And Tarantino’s ultra violent Django Unchained is simply going to clean up in the month that it is allowed.
http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/moviesnow/la-et-django-unchained-to-be-shown-in-china-20130313,0,6153646.story

Public taste in beautiful scenery is changing: All the female urban guerrillistas will be bikini wearing vegans armed with crossbows.

Sort of Charlies Angels meets Irma Vep, but with a Shanghai sensibility.

March 14, 2013 @ 6:41 am | Comment

@KT You should enter into the 2013 Beijing International Screenwriting Competition.

Link: http://writebeijing.org/competition/

You’re welcome. ^^

March 14, 2013 @ 10:27 am | Comment

Sorry, I’ve got nothing to add here, but I just pee’d myself laughing at the first comment, imagining it as a headline:

“America is Rattled – I Heard it From a Homeless Guy”

March 14, 2013 @ 10:55 am | Comment

@ t_co

Many thanks, but I don’t think my imagination is up to the job.

March 14, 2013 @ 3:10 pm | Comment

I suppose many of you have heard this somewhat related amusing story by now. CCTV on the perils of shooting PR hostages in the leg:

http://www.tealeafnation.com/2013/03/prominent-weibo-users-paid-to-bash-apple-introducing-chinas-820-party/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Tealeafnation+(Tea+Leaf+Nation)

March 16, 2013 @ 12:59 pm | Comment

[...] The provisions on deletion and dissemination of information echo recent stories about the “black PR” industry. The overriding concern, the maintenance of harmony and the “correct public opinion [...]

September 11, 2013 @ 12:09 am | Pingback

[...] The provisions on deletion and dissemination of information echo recent stories about the “black PR” industry. The overriding concern, the maintenance of harmony and the “correct public opinion [...]

September 14, 2013 @ 8:40 am | Pingback

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