A Great Sea of Placidity

By the end of February, the emotional wallop of Li’s death seemed to be fading. CAC workers around Hangzhou continued to scan the internet for anything that might perturb the great sea of placidity.

One city district noted that web users were worried about how their neighborhoods were handling the trash left by people who were returning from out of town and potentially carrying the virus. Another district observed concerns about whether schools were taking adequate safety measures as students returned.

On March 12, the agency’s Hangzhou office issued a memo to all branches about new national rules for internet platforms. Local offices should set up special teams for conducting daily inspections of local websites, the memo said. Those found to have violations should be “promptly supervised and rectified.”

The Hangzhou CAC had already been keeping a quarterly scorecard for evaluating how well local platforms were managing their content. Each site started the quarter with 100 points. Points were deducted for failing to adequately police posts or comments. Points might also be added for standout performances.

In the first quarter of 2020, two local websites lost 10 points each for “publishing illegal information related to the epidemic,” that quarter’s score report said. A government portal received an extra two points for “participating actively in opinion guidance” during the outbreak.

Over time, the CAC offices’ reports returned to monitoring topics unrelated to the virus: noisy construction projects keeping people awake at night, heavy rains causing flooding in a train station.

Then, in late May, the offices received startling news: Confidential public-opinion analysis reports had somehow been published online. The agency ordered offices to purge internal reports — particularly, it said, those analyzing sentiment surrounding the epidemic.

The offices wrote back in their usual dry bureaucratese, vowing to “prevent such data from leaking out on the internet and causing a serious adverse impact to society.”