Protesters carrying a banner saying "give the victims truth" demontrate in the hope of learing the truth of the July 23 high-speed train collision, at a railway station in Wenzhou, in eastern China's Zhejiang province on July 27, 2011. (STR/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

In the offices of China’s Communist Party newspaper, rows of analysts sit at computer screens poring over data that is stripped off the Internet.

Every comment made by the 591 million Chinese “netizens” is analyzed at the People’s Daily Online Public Opinion Monitoring Center, with summaries sent in real time to party leaders.

More than ever before, China’s rulers are actually listening to their people, reacting quickly to contain potential crises that could threaten one-party control.With its ability to control the Internet increasingly challenged, China’s Communist party has had to change its game.

Thepractice of collecting information on its citizens is as old as China itself: The nation’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, maintained a massive network of spies. The Communist Party’s own journalists have long funneled to party leaders classified reports on what is really happening at ground level.

But now, the government is trying to understand public opinion on an unprecedented scale. In response to government demand, opinion monitoring centers have sprung up in state-run news organizations and universities to mine and interpret the vast rivers of chatter on the Internet. At the same time, the authorities are hiring firms to poll people about everything from traffic management to tax policy.

Internet use around the world

“The government used to have more power to control the agenda,” said a professor at Renmin University in Beijing, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of restrictions on talking to foreign reporters. “But now there is a new approach, to identify the hot spots and try to control the crisis.”

The idea of actually listening to the opinions of the Chinese people is a radical departure for a Communist dictatorship more used to persecuting ordinary citizens for their criticism. But the country’s new president, Xi Jinping, warned in June that “winning or losing public support” could decide the party’s “survival or extinction,” according to state-run news agency Xinhua.

Increasingly, public opposition to a proposal can shape policy, although not yet on issues vital to the party’s interests, such as political reform.

Last month, for example, a woman won compensation for being unjustly imprisoned in a labor camp after her cause was taken up online. Her crime had been to demand punishment for officials she accused of raping her daughter.

Several construction projects have stalled in the face of opposition from netizens: plans for an aluminium processing plant in southern China were canceled last month after street protests and online outrage.

Netizens have also played a role in exposing official corruption, and experts count more than 170 party officials who have been prosecuted as a result of being exposed online.

Hiring private polling firms

Every government department, at the central and provincial level, has units devoted to public opinion research. But they tend to function very imperfectly, to produce reports that “justify what my boss is talking about, that it is the right thing,” said Victor Yuan Yue, chairman of Horizon Research Consultancy Group.

In recent years, though, the party has begun to turn to the private sector for public opinion research.

“Ten years ago, we never got any commissions from the government for our service,” Yuan said. “Today, the fastest-growing sector of our business is commissions from the government.”

Horizon is sometimes asked to poll people about a proposed policy change, such as measures to restrict car use in Beijing to cut pollution. It also surveys views on the performance of government departments, evaluating what taxpayers think about the tax bureau or how businesses view the bureaucracy involved in registering companies. Only once did a cabinet minister call to request that an embarrassing poll finding be altered, Yuan said, adding that he politely refused the request.

At People’s Daily, algorithms churn out real-time data on what people are talking about online, and daily and weekly reports summarize the dominant views on hot issues.

Recently, its opinion-monitoring center reported on criticism of a new law threatening penalties for children who failed to visit elderly parents often enough. A few days later, it recorded outrage after real estate magnate Zeng Chengjie was executed for financial fraud without his daughter being informed. Conducted mainly on Sina Weibo — China’s equivalent of Twitter — the online discussion about Zeng drew around 990,000 netizens.

Anger rose when the court posted on a weibo account — incorrectly as it turned out — that there was no legal provision requiring criminals to meet with their family members before execution.

Most of the “opinion mining” work carried out by the People’s Daily team is for consumption by officials or state-owned enterprises. The monitoring center advises officials on how to deal with crises — what language to use and how to conduct themselves in public, said the center’s deputy secretary general, Shan Xuegang.

Most of that advice is conveyed in private, but sometimes it makes its way into the publicly available report, as it did in the furor over the real estate magnate’s execution.

“In the weibo era, an Internet public opinion crisis cannot be handled by evading and dodging,” it concluded. “Facing the questions directly, speaking with the facts, convincing people by sincerity is the key to resolve the problem.” Law enforcers, it added, needed to respect the law. “Only when the law has the final say, can society have real peace.”

There is a similar monitoring unit at Xinhua, while at Remnin University, a team analyzes the search terms on Baidu, China’s equivalent of Google, to gauge society’s mood. Indeed, almost every university in China now has a department devoted to public opinion research.

Even so, the system remains incomplete, especially because Chinese villagers, who still account for nearly half of the population, are not comfortable expressing their views to strangers and are generally not active online. Controls on free speech also complicate the effort enormously.

Main source of news

There are also, of course, limits to what a party-led public opinion unit will publish — and limits too to what the state wants to hear. Leaders are not really interested in people’s views on political reform or foreign policy, because those are areas where decisions are still made by a small group of officials without regard to public opinion, said one person involved in polling who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear it could affect his career.

In the past two years, microblogging sites have supplanted state media as the people’s main source of news and have become the principal vehicle for the Chinese people to express opinions long suppressed. Tens of millions of messages are published on weibo every day.

Some views are still censored — posts attempting to organize street protests are almost certain to be removed, as is criticism of senior party leaders.

In a further effort to shape the online narrative, China’s various government departments have about 60,000 weibo accounts, and the government pays people to post favorable comments.

Nevertheless, Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor at the University of California at Berkeley and the founder of the China Digital Times news Web site, says the party is starting to lose the battle. In the past two years, he said, “politically liberal voices” have dominated the Internet in China, as people openly express their views on issues ranging from corruption to free speech, social justice or the environment.

Researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.