How a New For-Profit Industry Helps China’s Leaders ‘Manage Public Opinion’
Li Wenliang’s death had only been announced a few hours earlier, but Warming High-Tech was already on the case. The company had been monitoring online mentions of the COVID-whistleblower’s name in the several days since police had detained and punished him for “spreading rumors.” Now, news of his deteriorating condition, and eventual passing, had triggered a deluge of sorrow and outrage online adorned with candle emojis, photos of farewell wishes scrawled into the snow, and a final image of the 34-year-old ophthalmologist as he lay in his hospital bed in Wuhan.
It was February 7, 2020, and Warming High-Tech’s “Word Emotion Internet Intelligence Research Institute” swung into action, drafting a “Special Report on Major Internet Sentiment” for “relevant central authorities.” Warming’s report explained that online discussions of Li had “flooded” the Internet; the public’s “grief and indignation” would demand an urgent response from government officials. The company also offered recommendations for what such a response might entail, including advice that reads very much like public health guidance: “increase support efforts for affected regions, promptly respond to the people’s demands”; “prevention and control measures in non-affected areas can gradually be slowed and business can progressively and orderly resume, reducing losses and negative pressure for everyone.”