China’s Guerrilla War for the Web
by David Bandurski
They have been called the “Fifty Cent Party,” the “red vests” and the “red vanguard.” But China’s growing armies of Web commentators—instigated, trained and financed by party organizations—have just one mission: to safeguard the interests of the Communist Party by infiltrating and policing a rapidly growing Chinese Internet. They set out to neutralize undesirable public opinion by pushing pro-Party views through chat rooms and Web forums, reporting dangerous content to authorities.
By some estimates, these commentary teams now comprise as many as 280,000 members nationwide, and they show just how serious China’s leaders are about the political challenges posed by the Web. More importantly, they offer tangible clues about China’s next generation of information controls—what President Hu Jintao last month called “a new pattern of public-opinion guidance.”
It was around 2005 that party leaders started getting more creative about how to influence public opinion on the Internet. The problem was that China’s traditional propaganda apparatus was geared toward suppression of news and information. This or that story, Web site or keyword could be banned, blocked or filtered. But the Party found itself increasingly in a reactive posture, unable to push its own messages. This problem was compounded by more than a decade of commercial media reforms, which had driven a gap of credibility and influence between commercial Web sites and metropolitan media on the one hand, and old party mouthpieces on the other.
In March 2005, a bold new tactic emerged in the wake of a nationwide purge by the Ministry of Education of college bulletin-board systems. As Nanjing University, one of the country’s leading academic institutions, readied itself for the launch of a new campus forum after the forced closure of its popular “Little Lily” BBS, school officials recruited a team of zealous students to work part time as “Web commentators.” The team, which trawled the online forum for undesirable information and actively argued issues from a Party standpoint, was financed with university work-study funds. In the months that followed, party leaders across Jiangsu Province began recruiting their own teams of Web commentators. Rumors traveled quickly across the Internet that these Party-backed monitors received 50 mao, or roughly seven cents, for each positive post they made. The term Fifty Cent Party, or wumaodang, was born.
The push to outsource Web controls to these teams of pro-government stringers went national on Jan. 23, 2007, as President Hu urged party leaders 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.” Mr. Hu stressed that the Party needed to “use” the Internet as well as control it.
One aspect of this point was brought home immediately, as a government order forced private Web sites, including several run by Nasdaq-listed firms, to splash news of Mr. Hu’s Internet speech on their sites for a week. Soon after that speech, the General Offices of the cpc and the State Council issued a document calling for the selection of “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.”
By the middle of 2007, schools and party organizations across the country were reporting promising results from their teams of Web commentators. Shanxi Normal University’s 12-member “red vanguard” team made regular reports to local Party officials. One report boasted that team members had managed to neutralize an emerging BBS debate about whether students should receive junior college diplomas rather than vocational certificates, the former being much more valuable in China’s competitive job market. “A question came up among students about what kind of diplomas they would receive upon graduation,” the university report read. “A number of vanguards quickly discovered the postings and worked together to enforce guidance with good results.”
China’s Culture Ministry now regularly holds training sessions for Web commentators, who are required to pass an exam before being issued with job certification. A Chinese investigative report for an influential commercial magazine, suppressed by authorities late last year but obtained by this writer, describes in some detail a September 2007 training session held at the Central Academy of Administration in Beijing, at which talks covered such topics as “Guidance of Public Opinion Problems on the Internet” and “Crisis Management for Web Communications.”
In a strong indication of just how large the Internet now looms in the Party’s daily business, the report quotes Guan Jianwen, the vice president of People’s Daily Online, as saying during the training session: “In China, numerous secret internal reports are sent up to the Central Party Committee through the system each year. Of those few hundred given priority and action by top leaders, two-thirds are now from the Internet Office [of the State Council Information Office].”
The CCP’s growing concern about the Internet is based partly on the recognition of the Web’s real power. Even with the limitations imposed by traditional and technical systems of censorship—the best example of the latter being the so-called “Great Firewall”—the Internet has given ordinary Chinese a powerful interactive tool that can be used to share viewpoints and information, and even to organize.
But the intensified push to control the Internet, of which China’s Web commentators are a critical part, is also based on a strongly held belief among Party leaders that China, which is to say the CCP, is engaged in a global war for public opinion. In Gongjian, a book released earlier this year that some regard as President Hu’s political blueprint, two influential Party theorists wrote in somewhat alarmist terms of the history of “color revolutions” in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. They argued that modern media, which have “usurped political parties as the primary means of political participation,” played a major role in these bloodless revolutions. “The influence of the ruling party faces new challenges,” they wrote. “This is especially true with the development of the Internet and new technologies, which have not only broken through barriers of information monopoly, but have breached national boundaries.”
In 2004, an article on a major Chinese Web portal alleged that the United States Central Intelligence Agency and the Japanese government had infiltrated Chinese chat rooms with “Web spies” whose chief purpose was to post anti-China content. The allegations were never substantiated, but they are now a permanent fixture of China’s Internet culture, where Web spies, or wangte, are imagined to be facing off against the Fifty Cent Party.
Whatever the case, there is a very real conviction among party leaders that China is defending itself against hostile “external forces” and that the domestic Internet is a critical battleground. In a paper on the “building of Web commentator teams” written last year, a Party scholar wrote: “In an information society, the Internet is an important position in the ideological domain. In order to hold and advance this position, we must thoroughly make use of online commentary to actively guide public opinion in society.”
Mr. Hu’s policy of both controlling and using the Internet, which the authors of Gongjian emphasize as the path forward, is the Party’s war plan. Chinese Web sites are already feeling intensified pressure on both counts. “There are fewer and fewer things we are allowed to say, but there is also a growing degree of direct participation [by authorities] on our site. There are now a huge number of Fifty Cent Party members spreading messages on our site,” says an insider at one mainland Web site.
According to this source, Web commentators were a decisive factor in creating a major incident over remarks by CNN’s Jack Cafferty, who said during an April program that Chinese were “goons and thugs.” “Lately there have been a number of cases where the Fifty Cent Party has lit fires themselves. One of the most obvious was over CNN’s Jack Cafferty. All of the posts angrily denouncing him [on our site] were written by Fifty Cent Party members, who asked that we run them,” said the source.
“Priority” Web sites in China are under an order from the Information Office requiring that they have their own in-house teams of government-trained Web commentators. That means that many members of the Fifty Cent Party are now working from the inside, trained and backed by the Information Office with funding from commercial sites. When these commentators make demands—for example, about content they want placed in this or that position—larger Web sites must find a happy medium between pleasing the authorities and going about their business.
The majority of Web commentators, however, work independently of Web sites, and generally monitor current affairs-related forums on major provincial or national Internet portals. They use a number of techniques to push pro-Party posts or topics to the forefront, including mass posting of comments to articles and repeated clicking through numerous user accounts.
“The goal of the government is to crank up the ‘noise’ and drown out progressive and diverse voices on China’s Internet,” says Isaac Mao, a Chinese Web entrepreneur and expert on social media. “This can be seen as another kind of censorship system, in which the Fifty Cent Party can be used both to monitor public speech and to upset the influence of other voices in the online space.”
Some analysts, however, say the emergence of China’s Web commentators suggest a weakening of the Party’s ideological controls. “If you look at it from another perspective, the Fifty Cent Party may not be so terrifying,” says Li Yonggang, assistant director of the Universities Service Centre for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Historically speaking, the greatest strength of the CCP has been in carrying out ideological work among the people. Now, however, the notion of ‘doing ideological work’ has lost its luster. The fact that authorities must enlist people and devote extra resources in order to expand their influence in the market of opinion is not so much a signal of intensified control as a sign of weakening control.”
Whatever the net results for the Party, the rapid national deployment of the Fifty Cent Party signals a shift in the way party leaders approach information controls in China. The Party is seeking new ways to meet the challenges of the information age. And this is ultimately about more than just the Internet. President Hu’s June 20 speech, the first since he came to office in 2002 to lay out comprehensively his views on the news media, offered a bold new vision of China’s propaganda regime. Mr. Hu reiterated former President Jiang Zemin’s concept of “guidance of public opinion,” the idea, emerging in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Massacre, that the Party can maintain order by controlling news coverage. But he also talked about ushering in a “new pattern of public-opinion guidance.”
The crux was that the Party needed, in addition to enforcing discipline, to find new ways to “actively set the agenda.” Mr. Hu spoke of the Internet and China’s new generation of commercial newspapers as resources yet to be exploited. “With the Party [media] in the lead,” he said, “we must integrate the metropolitan media, Internet media and other propaganda resources.”
Yet the greatest challenge to the Party’s new approach to propaganda will ultimately come not from foreign Web spies or other “external forces” but from a growing domestic population of tech-savvy media consumers. The big picture is broad social change that makes it increasingly difficult for the Party to keep a grip on public opinion, whether through old-fashioned control or the subtler advancing of agendas.
This point became clear on June 20, as President Hu visited the official People’s Daily to make his speech on media controls and sat down for what Chinese and Western media alike called an “unprecedented” online dialogue with ordinary Web users. The first question he answered came from a Web user identified as “Picturesque Landscape of Our Country”: “Do you usually browse the Internet?” he asked. “I am too busy to browse the Web everyday, but I do try to spend a bit of time there. I especially enjoy People’s Daily Online’s Strong China Forum, which I often visit,” the president answered.
On the sidelines, the search engines were leaping into action. Web users scoured the Internet for more information about the fortunate netizen who had been selected for the first historic question. Before long the Web was riddled with posts reporting the results. They claimed that Mr. Hu’s exchange was a “confirmed case” of Fifty Cent Party meddling. As it turned out, “Picturesque Landscape of Our Country” had been selected on three previous occasions to interact with party leaders in the same People’s Daily Online forum.
For many Chinese Internet users, these revelations could mean only one thing—Party leaders were talking to themselves after all.
Mr. Bandurski is a free-lance journalist and a scholar at the China Media Project, a research program of the Journalism & Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong.
A Chinese translation of this article:
大约在2005年左右，党的领导人在影响网络民意的方式上变得更加创新。中国传 统的宣传机器适用于限制新闻和信息自由。各种的事件、网站或是关键词会被禁止、封锁或者过滤。这种审查方式使得党发现自身也陷于被动，无法有效释放自己的 信息。与这种审查方式并存了十多年的媒体商业化改革，在商业化网站、城市媒体与原有的党的喉舌之间撕开了一个公信力和影响力的大口子。
2005年三月，教育部对全国高校BBS进行了一次全面整治行动，一种新战略由此产生。在中国最 好的大学之一——南京大学，原先热门的“小百合BBS”被强制关闭。在新论坛上线之前，校方组织了一批热心学生在论坛里作为兼职的“网络评阅员”。这支负 责过滤“不良”信息并积极从党的立场进行话题辩论的队伍，是由大学勤工俭学基金资助的。之后，江苏省的各级领导开始招募本地的网络评阅员。网络上盛传这些 由党做后盾的评论员每发一贴得5块（大概7美分。译者注：原文如此）。“五毛党”的称呼由此而生。
2007年1月23日，这种将网络控 制工作外包给爱党人士组成的队伍的努力达到了高潮。当日，胡主席呼吁各级领导要“掌握网上舆论主导权，提高网上引导水平，讲求引导艺术，积极运用新技术， 加大正面宣传力度，形成积极向上的主流舆论。”胡主席还强调要切实把一手抓发展、一手抓管理的要求贯彻到网络技术、产业、内容、安全等各个方面。
2007年年中，全国各地学校和党组织报告了网络评 阅员队伍取得的喜人成绩。陕西师范大学的12名“红卫兵”定期向当地党的领导人作报告。一份报告指出这个小组的成员成功平息了BBS上关于学生应该考取大 专文凭还是职业资格证书的争论（前者在就业市场上更具竞争力）。“在毕业前应当取得何种证书的问题在学生中出现，”一份校报称，“很多小组成员迅速发现了 这些帖子并将讨论引向好的结论。”
以网络评阅员为重要组成的网络控制措施同样是基于的党的领导人的一个信念。那就是，中国， 或者说党，正处在一次全球舆论战争之中。在今年早些时候出版的《攻坚》一书，被一些人认为是胡主席的政治蓝图。书中，两位党的资深的理论家提及了东欧和中 亚的“颜色革命”，并对其深感忧虑。他们认为，在上述“不流血的革命”中，现代媒体扮演了“取代政党，成为政治参与的首要方式”的重要角色。“执政党的影 响力面临新的挑战，”他们写道，“这随着网络新技术的发展变得迫在眉睫。网络不仅打破了信息垄断的障碍，甚至穿越了国境线。”
不管网络对党的影响有多大，“五毛党”的快速部署标志着党的领导对中国信 息控制方式的变革。党在寻找面对信息时代挑战的新途径。而这最终不仅仅关系着网络。胡主席六月二十日的讲话，是他在2002年执政来首次综合表述他对新闻 媒体的观点，指明了中国宣传系统的新的前景。胡主席不断强调江泽民在民运之后的“引导舆论”的思想，也就是党可以通过控制新闻保持稳定。但他也谈到了引进 “舆论导向的新方式”。
6月20日，胡主席视察了《人民日报》，做了关于媒体工作的讲话，并与网民在线聊天，这被国内外媒体称之为“史无前例”的网上对话。他回答的第一个问题 是名为“大好河山美如画”的网民提出的：“您经常上网吗？”“虽然我平时工作比较忙，不可能每天都上网，但我还是抽时间尽量上网。我特别要讲的是，人民网 强国论坛是我经常上网必选的网站之一。”胡主席答道。