Provincial authorities in Guangdong Province have honored the Guangzhou-based Baiyun University for hiring a 50-plus person team to monitor student activities on social media sites and online forums, the Nandu Daily reported Tuesday, sparking a backlash from netizens.
Nicknamed "the online red army" by some students, the team that includes hired students scours online postings from students who vent their dissatisfaction. The team, which was set up in late 2010, monitors student postings on Sina Weibo accounts, QQ chat groups and forums, and attempts to counter their opinions.
The province called it an exemplary program related to the management of student affairs.
By Tuesday evening, there were some 3,000 Weibo posts about the "online red army," with most comments critical of the university saying it was using a "special intelligence brigade" to spy on the students.
A Weibo user named Guoxiaoxiaohaoren, whose personal information shows that he is currently a student at the school, said in a post Tuesday that many of his schoolmates worry the team is reporting them to school authorities. "The fear is wide and deep to the point where no one dares say anything."
Huang Yumei, a teacher from the school who works with the online monitoring team, told the Nandu Daily that they target malicious online messages. The team has "handled" some 100,000 messages since it was established, the report said.
"It was founded after rumors saying that some students had been killed at Baiyun University were posted online," Huang was quoted as saying.
Huang said the university is only trying to communicate with the students using modern means.
"Through monitoring and collecting information, problems with the school's management can be spotted, such as their call for better quality food in the cafeteria," Huang added.
Xiong Bingqi, deputy chief of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, told the Global Times Tuesday that as long as the monitoring does not interfere with students' private life and freedom to express themselves, there should not be problem.
"Many people are concerned about one of the team's claimed functions, which is to monitor free speech online," Xiong said.
A staff from the administrative office of the university told the Global Times Tuesday afternoon that the school is likely to respond to the public questioning on Wednesday.
The newspaper said the university's selection process for students who apply to join the team is stringent. "The students on the team are paid 7.5 yuan ($1.2) to 8 yuan an hour," Huang said, adding that some earn up to 300 yuan a month.
China's weekly story (2013.2.28-3.8)
Art schools exams in Chinese style
Yao Ming, the CPPCC Member
Eye-catching girls taking arts school exams
Foxes seek food from oil workers in Xinjiang
Cool Chinese female airplane captains
'Fresh style' in Chinese cities
The best partners during ‘two sessions’
Daily life of female airborne security guard