China: 50 Cent Party Roams on Internet

2010-10-20 - LEE Chi-Leung
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(Editor note: This article is a part of an investigative report originally published in Changcheng Monthly (長城月報)in Chinese. The report, written by ChangLei (張蕾)traces the history of government and party hired online commentators, the so-called 50 Cent Party.)

Since October 2004, Communication Office of Changsha Municipal Party Committee has been insistent in delivering a daily opinion digest, Changsha Yuqing Kuaibao (《長沙輿情快報》) to major officials of Municipal Party Committee and the Municipal Government. For this, the office have recruited members from units such as the Municipal Party Committee Office and Training School of Changsha Municipal Committee of CPC to form a team of net commentators. These astroturfing commentators are hired with a basic monthly salary of RMB 600, with commissions depending on number of posts they posted. Each of their posts would be logged on a “net commentators management system” and counts for 50 cents.

Members of 50 Cent Party (or Wumaodang, 五毛黨) and common netizens are warring over public opinion in front of frigid computers. Their identities might be obscure in real life, but their opposition on the internet is for real. Their speeches are often marked by discontent, sarcasm and even brute abuses.

Although Wumaodang has been active on internet forums, some politicians strive to prove its non-existence. In some official discourses these commentators are credited for their contribution for social harmony in channeling public opinion. On the other hand there are scholars who believe that the phenomena attests to the public power's “abduction” of public opinion.

The very existence of Wumaodang nevertheless shows that public opinion on the internet is posing great pressure on government bodies.

The Past and Present Life of a Net Commentator

The matter of net commentators has been obscure in official discourses, which gives a certain mystique about them.

The Alias of Li Guanghua (李光華) in Hunan province's offical website Rednet (紅網論壇, http://bbs.rednet.cn/ ) is “Surf for Public” (上網為公), he does not mind reporters calling him a Wumao. He says it is because he has got “used to this” and he would even jokingly call himself “the head of Wumao.”

Li Guanghua had resigned from his office as Deputy Director of Information Office in Publicity Department of Hengyang (Wunan Province) Municipal Party Committee 2 years ago for his career pursuits in the commercial sector. Even now, he still has the cautious working attitude of a Party trained leader. Remembering his time as a Wumao, Li's heart is filled with mixed feelings of pride, honor and at the same time that of quandary.

For Li, the significant work of internet commentators is to link the government with its people, “each week, I would organize net commentators to collect issues of concern as reflected by netizens, and comply an opinion compendium directly presenting to Secretary of Municipal Party Committee so that he would oblige the departments concerned to follow up with the cases within a specified period. This has been helping people in solving various issues such as unsettled complaints, unresolved appeals to higher authorities, environmental pollution and schooling.” For this, Li took pride in his pseudonymous activities on the net.

With internet becoming a prominent part of life in China, government officials are also becoming more and more concerned with public opinion on the net. A survey conducted by People (人民網, http://www.people.com.cn/ ) showed that 99.3% of net users would choose to expose unlawful violations on the internet. The opinion monitor of People has analyzed major incidents of great social impact in 2009 and found that about 30% of these incidents were initially brought to the public's attention by internet exposure, indicating the vast influence of internet over public opinion.

The emergence of net commentators attests to the government bodies' unprecedented concern in public opinion across internet. What bewildered Li is the netizens' unanimous rancor and attack against the commentators, even calling them names like Wumao.

In Li's opinion, Wumaodang is nothing like what netizens deemed as “bending for interest.” “We deal with things heartily.” “The accusation of 'selling one's soul' is nothing but rhetorical for those who hold different political views.”

The term “net commentators” first appeared in the official website of Nanjing University. When“Xiao Beihe BBS” (“Little lily BBS”, 小百合BBS, http://bbs.nju.edu.cn/ ) announced to close down in defiance to the official order to revamp, Nanjing University launched its official BBS in the same domain. The university assigned Student Union officers and “people with strong initiatives” as net commentators and drafted them into the university's Work-Study Programe (勤工助學體系). They were given subsidies on the basis of monthly assessment of their work.

These net commentators were to distribute materials beneficial to the university, and counter-replied to threads that contain negative information. They also filed reports to the Office of School Network Management Directorate (學校網絡管理工作領導小組辦公室) on materials that might be of the university's concern which circulated in websites within and outside the university.

Media reports suggested that such an effective measure to channel public opinion on the internet was quickly promoted across country as an “advanced working experience”. Soon afterward, similar net commentators systems were established in various government offices and tertiary schools in Suqian, JiangXu and Quanzhoui and Fujian, etc. Commentators would speak and actively engage in hot, difficult topics of discussions as ordinary netizens in order to counter “untruthful” commentaries made by others. In case of emergency, the commentators are requested to channel the opinion on line promptly and timely, so as to safeguard “positive” perspectives, and strive to diminish “negative” influences.

As reported by Yangtze Wenbao ( Yangtze Evening News,《揚子晚報》) in April 2005, the Publicity Department of Suqian Municipal Party Committee had recruited its first batch of 26 net commentators. Selected from candidates across the city, they were qualified for their good political standing, theoretical fluency and good sense of news. The newspaper also says, “Publicity Department of Municipal Party Committee will organize regular and irregular trainings for notable net commentators. There will be annual integrated assessment based on number of posts, follow-up replies they made and other criteria, as part of the city's Publicity Work Commendation and Reward Scheme.

According to Beifeng (北風, pseudonym), a former net commentator who worked for a news unit, net commentators are roughly divided into 2 types: there are dedicated commentators working for news websites, while the rest of them are part-timers in various ministries and commissions, Public Security and theoretical research units of the government. According to him, “there are about 20 dedicated net commentators in Guangdong province, each of them would write 2-4 piece of commentaries every week and they seldom engage in online discussions.”

However, government departments concerned have been elusive in discussing the matter, which gives the commentators a certain mystique.

Rednet is Hunang province's official website with sister sites for all prefecture-level cities and some of the county-level cities. An informant has told CNN reporter that there are numerous active net commentators working on these websites. In response to the reporter’s request for an interview, a department chief in Rednet has made it clear that, “the senior official has told me on the very first day of my work, that net commentator is a restricted topic not to be discussed with any outsider.”

In Li Guanghua's view, “It's hard to make a full disclosure of everything in China, if it is said that this is a good thing, then it is a good thing, if it is said a bad thing, then it is bad.” It is not difficult to understand the government's attitude when the outside world is of negative opinion with net commentators.

Li Ming (黎明), Director of commentary section, webmaster and senior opinion analyst of Club.kd.net (凱迪社區, http://club.kdnet.net/) thinks that, the government has been keeping the net commentators underground for a reason. For if otherwise, their speech would be regarded as official stance, making their work more risky. Net commentators are thus caught in an embarrassing situation, “even though they do exist, the government have to show that they do not.”

As reported by Lanzhou Shangbao (《蘭州商報》, Lanzhou Commercial News) earlier in 2010, Standing Committee Member of Provincial Party Committee and Head of Publicity Department Li XiaoJie (勵小捷) revealed in Gansu province's Conference for Publicity and Thought Work that, “the province will gradually form a team of net commentators that consists of 650 skillful 'master-hands' and 'writers' ” in order to “comprehend information circulating on the net, and respond to hot topics of concern timely, channeling public opinion properly.”

What is puzzling is that, the news sparked such a controversy that all articles quoting the news were soon deleted in various websites.

Where net commentators become some form of “underground party,” the rumors and talks of Wumaodang continues to circulate on the net.

Professional training of Wumao

Not that the leaders would like to take credit in making “achievement,” but with these assigned commentaries and replies they could have a taste of “harmonious” governance - in both virtual and actual realm of life.

According to some earlier media reports, the name Wumaodang was first coined in the Investigative Report of Publicity and Cultural Work in Nanchang, Changsha and Chengzhou (《關于南昌、長沙、鄭州宣傳文化工作的考察報告 》) published by Anhui province's Publicity Department. The report revealed that, “ a ' Net Commentator Management System' would facilitate the statistical assessment of net commentators' 'mission'; '50cents' for each post.”

Nevertheless, Li Guanghua denies such a notion and maintains that “we are all doing this on a voluntary basis in our spare time. There exists a certain kind of material reward but the 50-cents-a-post notion is an insult purported against net commentators by some.”

Li declines to answer CNN reporter's further questions on the issue of net commentators. However, an internal post among net commentators in Hengyang, which had been disclosed and widely circulating in October 2008 laid bare the net commentators' work and methods. While Li acknowledges the authenticity of such a post he is reluctant to talk about how it came about circulating everywhere. He even adds that, “the post was such an ordinary one the media had no need to sensationalize.”

The post in question reveals that the Hengyang team of net commentators consists of an unknown number of commentators who scatter around various counties and publicity units. Among them there is a team that is under the leadership of Li Guanghua (whose alias is Dayin, 大隱), which consists of 20 group leaders from across the province. The team has a clear guide of responsibilities and rights, and the tasks of posting are individually assigned.

The major responsibility that Li assigned for the commentators is “To maintain the image of the Party and Hengyang; To maintain social stability, and foster social harmony”

Li Guanghua had given an “emergency task” for commentators, requesting them to write and distribute 60 posts on “great discussion on liberation in thinking” (解放思想大討論). On top of that, they were to “register as many IDs as necessary, and how these IDs are named should be as diverse as possible. All passwords are recommended to set as 000000 to facilitate cross reference.” Whereas published posts should be “upload[ed] to the 'Net Commentator System' for statistical count, as accomplished tasks.”

Li Guanghua also warned his subsidiaries of 2 situations: The first was to avoid any critique of the government or even advice. For “whether it is directly criticizing the government, offering advice or to express wishes, it causes bad influences among netizens all the same. One would the impression that 'it is the government’s fault' and would bring only negative impact instead of channeling the opinion for the positive.”

Secondly, the posts should not contain official language. “Phrases such as 'Our governemt,' and 'there will always be better tomorrow under the leadership of Hengyang Municipal Party Committee/ Municipal City Government' have to be avoided because netizens would tell at the first glance that we are 'those from the government,' which undermines the effect of channeling work. Therefore these 2 situations should be 'avoided by all means'.”

Li suggested net commentators to register in various major gateway websites so as to publish replies to news items, engage in forum discussions or to write commentary articles. These posts, along with its actual content, url and alias used are required to upload to the “work statistic” page on the Net Commentator System for assessment by moderators. Net commentators were also suggested to closely follow activities on notable websites such as Xinhua Net (新華網, http://www.xinhuanet.com/ ), People (人民網 , http://www.people.com.cn/ ), CNTV (央視國際 , http://www.cntv.cn/ ) and China News (中新網, http://www.chinanews.com.cn/ ). They were also requested to pay attention to keyword search results of “Hengyang” and to report any negative news items found.

With many years of experience in Publicity Department, Li's training of net commentators very much adhere to principles of communications studies. He would use posts with disagreeing viewpoints as illustrations for the organized learners. Those which “encourage and urge for progress” are good commentaries while those which “fuel netizens' discontent and undermine the authority of the Party and the government” are not up to standard.

When handling with complicated news stories such as “traffic policeman assaulted when stopping Secretary of Provincial Party Committee's vehicle,” Li contented that “incidents of this kind are difficult to respond and incaution would only attract attacks from netizens.” He therefore requested them to use their wit and “try to channel the commotions on the web with other perspective.”

Another emergency notice says, “The Secretary of Municipal Party Committee would appear in the live broadcasting room for a dialogue with netizens and share his thoughts on liberation of thoughts at 10 am tomorrow.” Accordingly, Li requested his net commentator comrades to “ draft questions meticulously for Secretary of Municipal Party Committee and log on to the live broadcast threads to engage in opinion channelling work.”

In a great discussion of liberation in thinking initiated by the local cultural-propaganda units, Li Guanghua notified his team of commentators that, “Municipal Party Committee leaders are very concerned with the postings, Hengyang Ribao (Hengyang Daily News,《衡陽日報》) would cover the story of the present endeavour of intensive postings, should all commentators take action accordingly.”

Li told CNN reporter that such measures are understandable as the standard of net commentators are not always satisfactory. Many of the commentaries not only fail to channel public opinion, they might even bring counter effects sometimes, so that the training for net commentators are more than necessary.

“To call in net commentators to participate in discussion with Secretary of Municipal Party Committee might seems like pleading for achievement, and yet it is also one of the better ways to bring Municipal Party Committee and the Municipal City Government' s messages to the citizens,” Li Guanghua says.

Not that the leaders would like to take credit in making “achievement,” but with these assigned commentaries and replies they could have a taste of “harmonious” governance - in both virtual and actual realm of life.

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