Guest Column: China’s 50 Cent Party

Selina Wang

When Chinese citizens express their opinions through online outlets, they write in the presence of a state-appointed cyber police force. In a fairly recent development, the Communist Party has begun to employ professional web commentators to monitor online bulletins and blogs in order to ‘cleanse’ the internet of anti-party sentiments and to promote the party line. As minions of the Communist Party, these commentators steer online discussions with posts that reflect the CCP ideology while deleting any opposing posts. Paid 50 cents for every pro-party post, these commentators have earned the moniker, ‘Fifty Cent Party.’

In 2008, President Hu Jintao proposed a new policy in which he asked the state media to take an active role in shaping public opinion. Signaling a government commitment to harnessing the power of the Internet, Hu made a point to “exercise supremacy over Internet public opinion, master the technique of online ‘guidance’ and use new technology to amplify the effectiveness of ‘positive’ propaganda.”

Although this cyber police method began as an experiment in 2005, the censorship force behind it now employs thousands of Chinese mercenary commentators. Some sources even estimate that there are as many as 280,000 to 300,000 commentators. The Ministry of Culture of the People’s Republic of China even conducts training sessions in which participants are required to pass an exam before they receive job certification to become an official commentator.

Amateur censors come to this cyber police force from all walks of Chinese life. Some provinces have advertised the Fifty Cent Party with propaganda and catchy phrases such as “everyone can make 50 cents.” In a country with enormous income disparity, many citizens would take this opportunity to make quick money. However, other online commentators volunteer their time to the Chinese effort of censoring the web. Hu Yingying, a sophomore at Shanghai Normal University, volunteers several hours a week by assuming a false online identity and introducing politically correct discussions on her university’s online bulletins. She is proud and happy to be a contributor towards creating a “harmonious society.”

These opinion shapers are even speculated to work on foreign language websites. In attempts to sway discourse on foreign websites, commentators criticize Western notions of what is wrong with China and suggest considering the Chinese party line. The effects of the Fifty Cent Party have even reached popular U.S. websites – in 2010, an American blogger at the Huffington Post ascribed comments on her blog posts to members of the party. Not only have pro-state Chinese commentators made their presence felt far and wide, they’ve also cultivated an extremely short pattern of response. After the riots in Guizhou province in June 2008, the Chinese Internet was inundated with posts that criticized party officials. However, the Fifty Cent Party quickly intervened, deleting posts within fifteen seconds of their publication.

Despite the Big Brother-like control that the Communist Party wields, the effectiveness of China’s policies is questionable. Many comments left by these hired cyber police are often blatantly propagandist messages that are dismissed by increasing cynical Chinese netizens. The infiltration of official views very often disgusts ordinary Chinese citizens, who are reported to mock the Fifty Cent Party. Even Han Han, a famous Chinese celebrity, has posted a satirical training manual for Fifty Cent Party members – which has circulated widely alongside trenchant, critical cartoons. Furthermore, an increasing number of Internet-savvy citizens are able to sneak past censorship mechanisms users by bypassing firewalls and refraining from the use of ‘trigger’ keywords known to set off mercenary cyber police.

Regardless of the long-term impact of the Fifty Cent Party, the entire strategy of mass censorship strives to deceive the Chinese citizens, instead of creating a much-needed open relationship. Given that the Chinese government already controls most media outlets and almost all news providers, the enlistment of anonymous commentators clearly displays the government’s fear of facing the truth. Although legions of amateur censors make it more difficult for Chinese citizens to express their opinions, this is a minor obstacle that Chinese citizens – Internet-savvy, cynical and determined – will waste no time in bypassing.

Harvard Political Review, Harvard U. via UWIRE