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China's Fifty Cent Party for Internet Propaganda

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A funny thing happened when I published my first HuffPost blog entry. My blog dealt with subsidies from the Chinese government to its paper industry, with suggestions for US policy. Before HuffPost informed me that my entry had gone online, someone had posted comments to my blog. The commentator did not agree with my views and was not amused. In two lengthy, initial posts, the commentator questioned my data and US policy on China as a whole, and then presented an alternative view for readers of my blog to consider. Although I did not know at the time, I had received my first communication from China's Fifty Cent Party. The commentator continued to respond around the clock to every positive comment on my blog, eventually posting about two dozen comments.

Chinese Internet users first coined the term "Fifty Cent Party" for undercover Internet commentators that the Chinese government paid to influence public opinion. Fifty cents refers to the alleged pay the Internet commentators received per post. Currently, the term describes anyone who actively and publicly posts opinions online that defend or support Chinese government policy. Party organizations train the fifty centers to safeguard the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) interests and to neutralize undesirable public opinion by pushing pro-Party views. Qualifications for a fifty center include the "need to possess relatively good political and professional qualities... have a pioneering and enterprising spirit... and [the ability] to react quickly." In China, fifty centers report dangerous content to authorities; outside China, they work with Chinese news organizations and Chinese embassies. For an external observer of China, the fifty centers offer insights into what President Hu Jintao called "a new pattern of public-opinion guidance."

China is not the only country in the world to employ cyber police. However, the scale of China's efforts is staggering. The social media now comprises the dominant online activity for the Chinese. Currently, user-generated content provides the greatest component of China's online content. Noticing these trends two years ago, President Hu called on the CCP's members to "assert supremacy over online public opinion, raise the level and study the art of online guidance and actively use new technologies to increase the strength of positive propaganda." After Hu's speech, the State Council advertised for "comrades of good ideological and political character, high capability and familiarity with the Internet to form teams of Web commentators... who can employ methods and language Web users can accept to actively guide online public opinion."

The CCP has responded to the growth of Internet blogs by employing more fifty centers. By some estimates, China employs about 300,000 people to police the web in China, and an additional few thousand freelancers around the world. China's cyber police have special sections in every local, Chinese Public Security Bureau. Supervisory bodies for the Chinese Internet include:
  • The Internet Propaganda Administrative Bureau and the Centre for the Study of Public Opinion (under the Information Office of the State Council)
  • The Internet Bureau and Bureau of Information and Public Opinion (under the CCP's Publicity Department, formerly the Propaganda Department)
  • The Ministry of Information Industry (MII)
  • The Ministry of Public Security's Computer Monitoring and Supervision Bureau
  • The MII's Centre for the Registration of Illegal and Unsuitable Internet Content

Until last year, the fifty centers focused their attention on Chinese netizens. However, in 2009, the Chinese government announced a "Going Out" or zou chu qu media policy. The government pumped about 45 billion yuan into the mega project labeled China's Media Aircraft Carrier. China National Radio, China Central Television, People's Daily and Xinhua have restructured to boost China's global reputation. Through its Media Aircraft Carrier, China hopes to wield soft power more effectively in the global media which often ignores Beijing's positions. The fifty centers form the foot soldiers in this global battle to establish Chinese credibility. They provide the CCP's alternative voice on developments in China and around the world, without the official stigma.

Zhu Liangcai, Secretary of the Zhoukou Communist Youth League Committee, indicated some of the instructions that fifty centers received from the CCP:

The reason we don't use our true identity while communicating with netizens is because by not revealing our identity we allow them to feel our mutual equality, and avoid creating a feeling of opposition. At the same time the work can be smoothly accomplished without revealing what goes on behind the scenes; this achieves very good results.

Specific instructions for one fifty-center effort included:

• For local websites that republish news or related reports on this story, do the work of guiding online opinion; you have the responsibility of taking care of your own territory.
• Only post comments and follow-up comments, do not write commentaries.
• Each Party committee and department must post at least 5 follow-up comments and one substantive post, to be reported to the regional Discipline and Inspection commission classroom.
• Before April 25, each Party committee and department will send all posts, and also indicate the number of follow-up posts, choice posts, their length, their number of characters, their organizational clarity, and their richness of content.

An internal speech by China's top Internet official detailed some of China's plans to use the Internet to project soft power abroad. Wang Chen, Deputy Director of the Propaganda Department, Head of External (foreign) Propaganda and Director of the State Council's Information Office made his speech to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress on April 29 and posted it on the Congress's website on May 4. The next day, Chinese government censors removed, sanitized and re-posted the speech on another government website. However, Human Rights in China caught the original speech which it included in its report, China's Internet: Staking Digital Ground.

Wang Chen's speech outlined a vast array of Chinese institutions and methods that control opinion at home and abroad to "create an international public opinion environment that is objective, beneficial and friendly to us." His speech underscored the Fifty Cent Party's utility as informal public-opinion leaders that push the CCP's line on sensitive issues: "Government agencies at all levels... have gradually built mechanisms to guide public opinion through integrating the functions of propaganda departments."

China first moved to international deployment of fifty centers with Twitter. When the international media anointed The Huffington Post as one the Internet's most influential blogs, China listened. Chinese sources indicated that the Ministry of Propaganda has recruited hundreds of Chinese students in the USA, and several Chinese Embassy employees to respond to HuffPost's blogs.

In China, many netizens mock the Fifty Cent Party. See, for example, this blog post by Han Han, and this satirical training manual for Fifty Cent Party members. Cartoons about the Fifty Cent Party have also gained wide circulation on the Chinese Internet.

In the USA, diverse interest groups sponsor and fund the information we consume. However, we generally have awareness of funding sources behind campaigns to sway our opinions. Unlike the Fifty Cent Party's propaganda, most US web campaigns have short lives and employ relatively few people. Consequently, the journalistic axiom, "Consider the source" becomes crucial. As organized employees, fifty centers' efforts have both short and long-term ramifications. Yet, casual readers of blog posts may detect no discernible patterns. Unlike China, the US government should continue to protect anonymity on the web and freedom of speech. However, befitting our traditions, consumers of information also have a duty to interpret the easy flow of information through awareness of organized motives.