Big Pharma reads the Chinese Web

Let a hundred blogs about cancer bloom, and then figure out how to seduce the "e-fluencers."

By Andrew Leonard
Published February 14, 2007 6:45PM (EST)

2007 marks the 50th anniversary of Mao Zedong's crackdown on the 100 Flowers Movement, one of the landmark moments in the Chinese Communist Party's rule over China. First, Mao encouraged intellectuals to speak up and criticize the Party, inspiring them with the memorable couplet: "Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend." Then, shocked by the uproar of discontent that followed, Mao reversed course and launched the "Anti-Rightist Campaign," humiliating and punishing an entire generation of intellectuals who had dared to take the Chairman at his word.

Mark Oneill, writing in the increasingly indispensable Asia Sentinel, uses the contemporary efforts of some of the surviving victims of the anti-rightist campaign to seek an apology and possibly financial compensation for their trauma as a hook to review the current status quo of an age-old Chinese story: the intellectual vs. the state. The general outlines of this narrative are well known to anyone who follows China: Economic growth has led to increasing pressure against the boundaries of Party control, to which the Party, under the leadership of President Hu Jintao, has responded by sharply tightening the reins. It's the 100 Flowers/Anti-Rightist dialectic all over again, although this time it isn't the dictate of the chairman that has inspired public discussion, but a combination of economic affluence and the Internet. If you're looking for one article to bring you up to date, read Oneill's.

2007 will also, most likely, be the year the number of Chinese Internet users breaks 150 million. That's a big number, and thanks to China Web 2.0 Review we have the opportunity today to learn what all those people are saying about the topic of cancer, in "Word of Health: China," a report co-authored by the Edelman public relations agency and CIC, an "Internet Word of Mouth" research and consulting firm.

Though clearly a pitch by Edelman to Big Pharma with the straightforward message hire us to help spread the word about your products in China, the report is still quite intriguing, both for what it says about how corporations are currently viewing the Internet as a marketing medium, and for how China's enormous Internet-enabled population is driving the formation of new models of cultural discourse.

China's millions of Internet users are posting to bulletin boards in huge numbers, and one of their favorite topics of discussion is healthcare. Edelman and CIC crunched some "1,427,853 user-generated messages from 176,373 unique posters on 13 Chinese Web sites and 430 health-related BBS forums" between July 1 and Sept. 30, 2006, to figure out who and what exactly they were talking about.

Why go to all this trouble? Edelman declares that the era in which industry could manage its branding and marketing messages solely by top-down "vertical" communication through mainstream media are over. Today, it's all about "horizontal" communication between individuals via the Internet. So if you want to get your message out, you have to identify who the key "e-fluencers" are (a word that gets my vote for most ungainly coinage of the 21st century) and figure out how to become part of their conversation. In China, "Samar," the "Tumor Doctor" and "Dao Ke Dao Feichang Dao" are the new gatekeepers of cancer information.

Edelman finishes with some do's and don'ts for pharmaceutical companies looking to work this horizontal conversation to their advantage. Some are obvious -- don't spam, don't offer money directly to e-fluencers -- or you'll get burned by the backlash. But my favorite piece of advice displays a deep understanding of how the information ecology of the Web works: "offer what e-fluencers desire most: unique information and recognition."

So, so true. Giving a blogger access to an info-nugget that no one else possesses is like handing him or her the keys to the castle. On the Web, ownership of rare information doesn't last long, but for the nanoseconds that it does exist the Internet masses will stampede to you in a rush most intoxicating.

So how do a hundred (thousand, million) conversations about cancer drugs connect to the censorship of political dissidence and the yearning of aging rightists for redress? The answer is inescapable: As China's Internet population continues to surge, and "horizontal" conversations continue to burgeon, via bulletin boards, blogs and mobile phones, the Chinese Communist Party must eventually conclude, just like Big Pharma, that top-down vertical control is impossible. As smart and wily rulers they will seek other ways to manage opinion and politics, but in doing so, their power will inevitably weaken.

This is, of course, a hoary dream of Internet freedom fighters, blithely confident that the disintermediating powers of the Net will undermine hierarchical control in a fashion somewhat similar to the way multiplying cancer cells wreak havoc on the human body. I've long been skeptical of the application of this dream to China, scarred too deeply by memories of Tiananmen. But the deeper you grapple with the incredibly rapid emergence of civil society in China, the harder it becomes to deny that true change is on the way.

Just the very notion that some survivors of the anti-rightist campaign of 1957 are demanding an apology from the Chinese Communist Party, however unlikely it is that that will happen anytime soon, is itself a sign of profound change. Big Pharma can't ignore, or directly control, the conversations Chinese citizens are having among themselves about cancer drugs. It can't be too long before the CCP gets the same message about Chinese history.

UPDATE: I misidentified Edelman's co-partner in the report on Chinese Internet user habits. It wasn't the Chinese Network Information Center, but CIC, "an Internet Word of Mouth" research and consulting firm.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Cancer China Globalization How The World Works