State Media revealed this weekend that over 2 million people are employed by China's government to monitor web access. To put that number in perspective, this almost equals the 2.28 million active personnel currently serving in the People's Liberation Army - the largest standing army in the world.
The Beijing News reported that the 2-million strong horde of monitors, which Beijing describes as "Internet opinion analysts", are mostly occupied with performing keyword searches and compiling reports of "negative opinions" posted by Internet users.
The analysts do not delete the posts, the Beijing daily says, as such tactics merely result in campaign of reposting and sharing, often leading to greater exposure. Instead, all their findings go into reports that are then handed to illusive and unnamed "clients". One of those clients is the Chinese government.
The Online Public Opinion Monitoring and Analysis Centre, as the central monitoring agency is called, sends daily text messages and printed reports to the leaders of the People's Republic of China (PRC), as well as supplementing these with more extensive weekly reports. Some of these documents can be up to 20 pages long.
In return, the centre is sent lists of specific keywords to mine, and areas of public opinion to report on.
While once web analysts simply combed through Google searches to find transgressors, in recent years the software used to sift the output of China's nearly 600 million Internet users has become increasingly sophisticated. The programme is now reportedly run through huge server banks containing thousands of units.
While China rarely reveals details of its enormous snooping campaign, the recent official acknowledgement of the role of opinion analysts has given us a remarkable glimpse into the inner workings of the PRC's "great firewall". The report also revealed that the government is organising a training programme for monitors, to take place from 14 to 18 October. Despite the huge number of people already employed in this programme, it seems the position is still very much in high demand.
The revelations come just one week after Chinese regulators promised to crack down on mobile apps that allow access to foreign media outlets. China has been rapidly expanding the reach of its online surveillance programme in recent years, since witnessing the role that social media played in the anti-government protests of the Arab Spring.
While political dissidence is still harshly punished in the PRC, occasionally the tide of online opinion can change policy in Beijing. Experts count more than 170 party officials who have been prosecuted after having corrupt activities exposed online.
One especially high profile case saw a woman granted compensation in July for spending over a week in a labour camp. Her crime: protesting the rape of her daughter by government officials. She was awarded 2,941 Yuan (£317) after her case was taken up by users of the popular micro-blogging site Sina Weibo.
Several construction projects have also been delayed or halted after protesters organised their efforts online. An aluminium-processing plant in Southern China was cancelled earlier this year when the online outrage of netizens bubbled over into street protests.
China has the world's largest online population with 591 million users as of June this year, representing 44 per cent of the population.
Image: Flickr (grenzfurthner)