Beijing police Thursday announced the recruitment of thousands of Chinese students to monitor online social platforms and public messaging systems.
According to the International Federation of Journalists, police officials in the Chinese capital said more than 3,000 young people have been voluntarily acting as cyber informants over the last two years.
During that period, Beijing police have issued reprimands to at least 8,400 netizens, deleted more than 500,000 online messages and deactivated at least 9,000 social media accounts.
According to China's state-run Xinhua News Agency, 80 percent of the volunteers were born in the 1980s and 1990s, and the majority of them are highly educated.
Chinese officials say the online tipsters have provided more than 15,000 pieces of criminal information on fraud, pornography, gambling, rumors, contraband and other illicit activities. They also said volunteers made up for the lack of official Internet police forces, and covered "all corners of the Internet."
Many normal citizens, however, dismiss the "Internet police" label, choosing instead to refer to volunteers as "informants" and "spies."
"You will find this kind of people in any society, they are informants and lackeys, the Chinese Communist Party has trained lots of them, in order to secure the regime," said Li Datong, the managing editor of Freezing Point, a section of the China Youth Daily. The publication was shut down by China's authorities in 2006 in response to its critical stance.
A January 13 police conference in Beijing, entitled "Net Police Volunteers," drew attendance from four other volunteer groups that help monitor ordinary citizens. The apparent show of solidarity prompted concerns that Chinese authorities intend to promote and expand what it describes as an all-volunteer, grassroots community of cyber watchers, and use the loosely organized groups to monitor ordinary citizens and corrupt officials alike.
Online reaction, however, indicated that many netizens are skeptical that the volunteers would bother to monitor state officials — corrupt or otherwise.
"They will only monitor unarmed civilians, they can do nothing to stop corrupt officials," posted one SinaWeibo user.
"It is such a powerful team, although they will never report on corrupt officials — their use of state cars, feasting and traveling with public funds," wrote another. "But when it comes to monitoring ordinary Chinese netizens, staring at citizens keyboard (sic), and taking a look at their crotches, they can certainly make the British military intelligence, the CIA and Israel's Mossad blush with shame."
Some Chinese netizens doubt an all-volunteer organization would achieve its desired purpose.
"A normal society will not encourage exposing, surveillance and spying by one group of people on another," wrote one online commenter. "It should not target citizens only, otherwise citizens will be monitored all the time. Also, [does] this group of people really understand the law? What about entrapment? If we allow young people to participate in the monitoring, will it nurture in them an informant character?"
Chinese constitutional scholar Chen Yongmiao tells VOA the government's use of such organizations is "inevitable" because the system seeks stability. He believes that in authoritarian countries, there is always the question of freedom of speech.
‘Sense of responsibility’
Chinese authorities say the main job of web monitors is to report and delete pornography and other illegal content, but Chen says political and pornography issues in China are sometimes "tied together," and official restrictions on so-called "sensitive words" are primarily related to these two categories.
Chinese authorities have been criticized for deleting blogs and remarks critical of the government or offensive to the government.
While web monitors work for free, they do receive a certificate of honor; those who help police uncover serious cases are eligible for bonuses ranging from 3,000 to 5,000 RMB (about $450 to $750).
One volunteer named Li Dong said in an interview with China's official Global Times that he felt informing police about online behavior and activities stems from a personal moral sensibility.
"I just think it is the responsibility of a citizen, and I believe that many Internet users will have a sense of responsibility to do the same thing," said Li Dong, adding that the volunteers are not informants and that they don't "look for any specific clues."
Another advocate of voluntary web monitoring, a young woman who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity, said she would report pornography and other illegal information to police, but she would not want to be an official volunteer or join any organization for fear of being asked to remove "legal information."
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Mandarin Service.