50 Cent Party
|50 Cent Party|
The 50 Cent Party, or 50 Cent Army (Chinese: 五毛党 wǔmáo dǎng), is the colloquial term for Internet commentators i.e. trolls (Chinese: 网络评论员 wǎngluò pínglùn yuán) hired by Chinese propaganda authorities in an attempt to manipulate public opinion to the benefit of the Chinese Communist Party during the early phases of Internet's rollout to the wider public in China. The name derives from the allegation that commentators were said to be paid fifty cents (in Renminbi) for every post. They created favorable comments or articles on popular social media networks, intended to derail discussions that are unhelpful to the Communist Party and promoted narratives that served the government's interests, together with disparaging comments and misinformation about political opponents and critics of the Chinese government, both domestic and abroad. It is also used as a derogatory term against people with perceived pro-CCP or Chinese nationalist views. 
A 2016 Harvard University paper found that in contrast to common assumptions, Chinese internet commentators are mostly paid government bureaucrats, responding to government directives in times of crisis, and flood Chinese social media with pro-government comments. They also rarely engage in direct arguments, and around 80% of the analyzed posts involve pro-China cheerleading with inspirational slogans, and 13% involve general praise and suggestions on governmental policies.
As of 2016, this practice seems to have largely ceased, and propagandist participation in Internet discussions has become part of the Communist party officials' normal work. Also the nature of participation has become more nuanced and less aggressive. Research indicated a "massive secretive operation" to fill China's internet with propaganda has resulted in some 488 million posts carried out by fake social media accounts, out of the 80 billion posts generated on Chinese social media. To maximize their influence, their pro-government comments are made largely during times of intense online debate, and when online protests have a possibility of transforming into real life actions
In March 2005, the Ministry of Education of the People's Republic of China enacted a systematic censorship of Chinese college bulletin board systems. The popular "Little Lily" BBS, run by Nanjing University, was forced to close. As a new system was prepared to be launched, school officials hired students as part-time web commentators, paid from the university's work-study funds, to search the forum for undesirable information and actively counter it with Party-friendly viewpoints. In the following months, party leaders from Jiangsu began hiring their own teams. By mid-2007, web commentator teams recruited by schools, and party organizations were common across China. Shanghai Normal University employed undergraduates to monitor for signs of dissent and post on university forums. These commentators not only operate within political discussions, but also in general discussions. Afterwards, some schools and local governments also started to build similar teams.
On 23 January 2007, Chinese leader Hu Jintao demanded a "reinforcement of ideological and public opinion front construction and positive publicity" at the 38th collective learning of Politburo. Large Chinese websites and local governments have been requested to publish the sayings of Hu, and select "comrades with good political quality" to form "teams of Internet commentators" by the CPC Central Committee (中共中央办公厅) and General Office of the State Council (国务院办公厅).
Negative reporting of local authorities has increased on the internet since then. In one instance described on the China Digital Times, the Jiaozuo (Henan) City Public Security Bureau established a mechanism to analyse public opinion after criticism of the police handling of a traffic incident appeared on the internet. The Bureau responded with 120 staff calling for the truth to be revealed in line with the public opinion, which gradually shifted and eventually supported the police position, denouncing the original poster. In the aftermath of the 2008 Guizhou riot, internet forums were filled with posts critical of the local authorities; the China News Weekly later reported that "the major task of the propaganda group was to organize commentators to past [sic] posts on websites to guide online public opinions."
In 2010, the Shanghai Communist Youth League's official website published a summary, saying that there were more than 200 topics by Shanghai Municipal Authorities' Internet commentators posted at People's Daily site, Xinhua site, Eastday (东方网), Sina and Tianya after many incidents in 2009, including Lotus Riverside incident, Green Dam software forced installation, Putuo Urban Administrative incident, H1N1's control, Shanghai entrapment incident (钓鱼执法), Pan Rong (潘蓉)'s self-immolation, etc. It was praised by Shanghai Internet Publicity Office.
In December 2014, a Chinese blogger hacked into and published email archives for the Internet Propaganda Department of Zhanggong District in Ganzhou, including over 2,700 emails of 50 Cent Party internet commentators. For instance, on 16 January 2014, Shi Wenqing, secretary of the Ganzhou branch of the CCP, held a televised "internet exchange" in which he answered questions from a local news website forum; 50 Cent Party commentators were instructed to post seven discussion points, such as (translated) "I really admire Party Secretary Shi, what a capable and effective Party Secretary! I hope he can be the father of Ganzhou for years to come."
Range of operation
The Ministry of Culture of the People's Republic of China now holds regular training sessions, where participants are required to pass an exam after which they are issued a job certification. As of 2008, the total number of 50-cent operatives was estimated to be in the tens of thousands, and possibly as high as 280,000–300,000. Every large Chinese website is instructed by the Information Office to create a trained team of Internet commentators.
According to the Chinese Communists' opinions of the recruitment of university Work Committee (tentative), the university Internet commentators are mainly selected from cadres or student cadres at Communist Party Publicity Department of universities, Youth League, Office of Academic Affairs, Network Center, Admissions Employment Department, Political Theory Department, Teaching Department and other units.
The court of Qinghe District, Huai'an organized a team of 12 commentators. Gansu Province hired 650 commentators, sorted by their writing abilities. Suqian Municipal Publicity Department's first 26 commentators' team were reported by Yangtse Evening Post in April 2005. According to high-profile independent Chinese blogger Li Ming, the pro-Chinese government web commentators must number "at least in the tens of thousands".
Wen Yunchao (温云超), a former Internet commentator said that there were about 20 full-time commentators for the local news websites in Guangdong. A county-level discipline inspection commission's Internet commentator estimated more than 100 spare-time Internet commentators in his county, whose population was about 1 million. Hu Yong, an Internet expert from Peking University, said that "the public opinion molders have already penetrated different layers of Chinese society", he found public opinion watchmen that deal with negative information on the forums in tourist city's airport and county-level middle school. A 2016 Harvard study estimated that the group posts about 488 million social media comments per year.
According to an article published by Xiao Qiang on her website China Digital Times, a leaked propaganda directive, sent to 50 Cent Party internet commentators, stated their objective was the following:
In order to circumscribe the influence of Taiwanese democracy, in order to progress further in the work of guiding public opinion, and in accordance with the requirements established by higher authorities to "be strategic, be skilled," we hope that internet commentators conscientiously study the mindset of netizens, grasp international developments, and better perform the work of being an internet commentator. For this purpose, this notice is promulgated as set forth below:
- (1) To the extent possible make America the target of criticism. Play down the existence of Taiwan.
- (2) Do not directly confront [the idea of] democracy; rather, frame the argument in terms of "what kind of system can truly implement democracy.”
- (3) To the extent possible, choose various examples in Western countries of violence and unreasonable circumstances to explain how democracy is not well-suited to capitalism.
- (4) Use America's and other countries' interference in international affairs to explain how Western democracy is actually an invasion of other countries and [how the West] is forcibly pushing [on other countries] Western values.
- (5) Use the bloody and tear-stained history of a [once] weak people [i.e., China] to stir up pro-Party and patriotic emotions.
- (6) Increase the exposure that positive developments inside China receive; further accommodate the work of maintaining [social] stability.
The English version of China-based Global Times reported that Changsha Publicity Department's Internet commentators were paid 0.5 yuan per post, which is considered as the origin of the term "50 Cent Party". However, according to the local party-building website, the basic salary of such commentators was 600 yuan in 2006.
A county-level discipline inspection commission's Internet commentator from Hunan Province told Global Times that a 500-word article is worth 40 yuan on local websites and 200 yuan on national sites.
There is an alternate official term for the Internet Commentator, as well as several unofficial terms coined by netizens for them:
|Chinese (Simp/Trad)||Pinyin||Literally in English||Commonly in English||Note|
|Official name (Primary)||网络评论员/網絡評論員||wǎngluò pínglùn yuán||Internet commentator||Internet commentator||Abbreviation in Chinese: 网评员/網評員 (wǎng píng yuán)|
|Official name (Secondary)||网络阅评员/網絡閱評員||wǎngluò yuè píng yuán||Internet examiner and commentator||N/A|
|Unofficial term||五毛党/五毛黨 or simply 五毛||wǔmáo dǎng or wǔmáo||5 mao[Note 1] Party or 5 mao, 5 pence||50 Cent Party||The most common name, pejorative. Other English translation: 50 Cent Army|
|Unofficial term||网评猿/網評猿||wǎng píng yuán||Ape that comments on the Internet||N/A||Pronounced identically with the above Chinese wǎng píng yuán 网评员 abbreviation, punning yuán (猿 "ape; monkey") for yuán (员 "personnel, staff member"), pejorative|
|Other English terms||红马甲/紅馬甲, 红卫兵/紅衛兵||hóng mǎjiǎ, hóng wèibīng||Red vest; Red guard||Red vest, Red vanguard||The Chinese translation for these English terms are rarely used|
Among those names, "50 Cent Party" (五毛党) was the most common and pejorative unofficial term. It was created by Chinese netizens as a satire. Many trace the origin of the "50-cent" name to the salaries at the Publicity Department of Changsha, which according to the English version of Global Times, supplemented Internet Commentators' basic income with 50-cent ("5 mao") [Note 1] per post since October 2004.
The term is derogatorily applied by cynical Chinese netizens to any person who blatantly expresses pro-Communist Party thoughts online. However, there's another word "5 US cent (五美分)" used by some netizens to denigrate anti-party comments, with the implication that those commentators are hired by the governments of the United States, Taiwan or other western countries. Zhang Shengjun, a professor of international politics at Beijing Normal University published an article Who would be afraid of the cap of "50 Cent Party"? on the Chinese version of Global Times, saying that the term is spread by western media outfits, "it has become a baton waved towards all Chinese patriots" to make the Chinese government a constant target of criticism.
The Chinese cyberspace is also noted for its ideological contests between "rightists" - reformists who advocate Western style democratic reforms, versus "leftists" - conservatives and neo-Confucianists who advocates Chinese nationalism and restructured socialism. In this backdrop, rightists sometimes refer to leftists derogatorily as "50 Centers", regardless of their actual employment background. 
Effects and opinions
The Internet commentator/50 Cent Party's activities were described by CPC general secretary, Chinese President Hu Jintao as "a new pattern of public-opinion guidance"; "they represent a shift from simply erasing dissenting opinions to guiding dialogue, lest the "truth may hurt social stability". In 2010, a contributor to The Huffington Post stated that some comments she received on one of her posts were from the 50 Cent Party; she also stated that the 50 Cent Party monitors popular US websites, news sites and blogs and posts comments that advance Chinese governmental interests.
David Wertime of Foreign Policy argued that the narrative where a large army of paid internet commentators are behind China's poor public dialogue with its critics is "Orwellian, yet strangely comforting". Rather, many of the Chinese netizens spreading nationalist sentiment online aren't paid, but often mean what they say.
- Internet Water Army, private astroturfing from paid Chinese writers paralleling the 50 Cent Party
- Great Firewall of China, a Chinese "national firewall" Internet censorship system
- Internet censorship in the People's Republic of China
- Astroturfing, a form of advocacy in support of a political, organizational, or corporate agenda, designed to give the appearance of a "grassroots" movement
- State-sponsored internet sockpuppetry, a list of other similar programs internationally
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