The seven-page document, which was reviewed by The Washington Post, analyzed the intensity of public outrage over Li, who was muzzled by Wuhan police after he tried to spread word about the coronavirus in December. It recommended that the Party leadership “affirm” the doctor’s contributions while stepping up efforts to block harmful speech and “divert” the public’s attention with positive news.
It predicted, finally, that there was “low probability” of street gatherings but warned local authorities to be on guard to “deal decisively” with any unrest.
As the document surfaced online early Saturday, many Chinese Internet users condemned the company for offering such services to the government. In an interview, Qi said he was surprised the document leaked, but defended his work as a public service and said it was demonstration of his company’s capabilities.
“Anger is the emotion with the strongest transmissibility. You have to understand how it gets formed, then you resolve the issues one-by-one,” he said, adding he was not paid by the government. “We have nothing to hide with our work.”
It is unclear whether Party officials paid any heed to Womin’s advice, but the report — and the public anger surrounding it — touched upon two truths of today’s China: With opportunities for mobilizing and gathering increasingly restricted, particularly during a nationwide epidemic, politics is increasingly playing out in cyberspace. As a result, the techno-authoritarian government needs precisely the kind of insights Qi provides to maintain its rule.
Qi, a 46-year-old entrepreneur who founded Womin in 2007, said he could not provide proof that his work was influencing policy, but he has been submitting similar reports during national crises for years to high-placed friends inside the Party. He would not say who.
According to his company bio, Qi has been invited to make reports before the Communist Party Central Committee’s General Office, which within the Chinese system is headed by a Party official that is equivalent to the White House chief of staff.
Qi said he mostly has financial sector clients and only submits public sentiment reports to officials during extraordinary crises such as China’s stock market plunge in 2015. His company has access to more than 100 sources of social media data, including Facebook and Twitter and other services nominally banned in mainland China, he said.
Online, Chinese netizens were not impressed. Some called Womin a “public enemy” for offering its services to the government and recommending more censorship. Others called the company a joke.
Qi said his company only recommended blocking rumors and harmful information. “Most people I’m aware of believe our recommendations are reasonable,” he said. “The government collects information and then makes an informed decision about how to act. We just try to capture reality as best as we can.”
Qi said he recommended the government match its actions with the public’s expectations and try to hold officials accountable. The Communist Party on Friday did just that, dispatching anticorruption investigators — an arm of the party generally held in high regard by the public — to look for signs of wrongdoing in the events that led to Li’s death.
Grief, anger and fear accounted for 72, 14 and 8 percent of the responses in the hours after Li’s death first trickled out, according to Womin’s analysis. Posts about the doctor soon blanketed social media and peaked at 11 p.m. Thursday night before dropping precipitously by 5 a.m. — possibly as Internet censors revved up.
The report noted that most of the social media anger was directed at government officials’ “dereliction of duty” and the fact that Wuhan police detained Li in January, which possibly contributed to the epidemic’s spread.
But there were other trends, it noted: “All kinds of people domestic and overseas who are not satisfied with the Chinese political system are using the opportunity to foment and push this case.”
Qi said Womin did not just study social media sentiment on domestic issues. Many of his clients turn to him for insights on matters like the outcome of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. (“Trump will definitely win unless he has health problems,” he predicted.)
Womin employs many computer science engineers and sociologists, said Qi, who graduated with a philosophy degree from Beijing Normal University. The company is also advised by prominent Princeton sociologist Yu Xie, who is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences, as well as the Academia Sinica in Taiwan. In emails, Xie said he did not work on Womin’s latest report. He said he previously provided consultation but was never hired by the company.
The company has also received investment from Tencent — the owner of WeChat — and participated in the Internet giant’s start-up incubator program.
Qi said he felt only pride for his firm.
“We have people who study communications. We have people with military backgrounds,” he said. “We have a very complete team. There is not another company in China with capabilities like ours.”