If there is one thing sure to make the blood boil it is the readers’ comments below online news articles. How many times have you read a story in the Economist, or New York Times, or the Guardian, and silently raged against the trolls and misanthropes that dollop their unwelcome thoughts on the page?
If you are in China, then hope is at hand. There is a phenomenon on the loose, open to any journalist or editor with deep pockets and shallow concerns. It is called the 50 Cent Party, and it has taken the Chinese media by storm.
Wǔ máo dǎng (五毛党) – as the 50CP is known here – is the term for freelance internet commentators in China that post pro-Government and pro-Communist Party comments. The 50 cent part of their name comes from them being paid to make these comments every time they manage to advance the official state line or indeed just steer a thread away from disruptive topics.
As some of these partiers can earn hundreds of yuan a month – a nice top-up to standard wages in China – it is probable that the activists are motivated by a mix of nationalist and financial fever.
The Government doesn’t take them lightly: there is even an official exam that they take to become a registered partier. Indeed, they appear to have an important role in Government policy, as this leaked propaganda directive to 50 cent partiers shows. Their objective was stated as:
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
Western commentators that sigh upon reading this will be refreshed to know the depth of ill feeling against these activists. For many Chinese they represent the continued efforts of the Government to interfere in their social media lives, as my Chinese friends can all too well attest.
Yet the campaign is not all that different from some of the political techniques utilised outside China. The 2008 campaign of US Presidential hopeful John McCain attracted criticism when it emerged that volunteers were being offered prizes in exchange for seeding comments and messages supplied to them. The rewards on offer – books signed by McCain, a ride with the candidate on his campaign bus – tap into the mix of profit and politics that are the probable motivations for China’s 50 cent-ers.
Hong Kong blogger Oiwan Lam, who has written widely on the subject, explains all in this video: