China's Internet awash with state spies
By Wu Zhong, China Editor

HONG KONG - An innovative Internet-based "profession" of state-outsourced web commentators is flourishing under the guidance of the Chinese government, according to the latest edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER).

As the article, titled "China's Guerrilla War for the Web", reports:
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 Communist Party organizations - have just one mission: to safeguard the interests of the 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. [1]
The so-called "Fifty Cent Party", or wumaodang, is more
commonly known by its literal translation as the "Five Mao Party" - a derogatory term applied to the pro-party bloggers by other Chinese Internet users. According to the FEER report, "Rumors traveled quickly across the Internet that these Party-backed monitors received 50 mao, or roughly seven US cents, for each positive post they made."

The allegations of receiving such meager pay for posting propagandistic opinions has only worsened online perceptions of the "Five-Mao Party". The unfriendly nickname itself is telling: the official commentary army - estimated by the FEER article "to comprise as many as 280,000 members nationwide" - is most unpopular among regular Internet users.

The hired commentators normally paste their posts under pseudonyms in an attempt to mask their identities. But in China their existence is anything but secret. According to FEER, authorities publicly recruit them, train them and, from time to time, hold meetings to praise their contributions. Keying in the Chinese words "web commentator" (wangluo pinglunyuan) or "web supervisor" (wangluo jinduyuan) in any Chinese search engine yields numerous posts about these events.

At the end of last year the Beijing Youth Daily reported,
"From yesterday, 200 netizens from across the country have become our city's first group of specially appointed web supervisors. From now on, the content of all websites in our city will be subject to special supervision from all social sectors and bloggers from across the country. Whenever there appears some 'uncivilized' content, special supervisors will quickly report it to the Beijing Association of Online Media."
To help "supervise" the Internet, state commentators are also tasked with helping authorities guide public opinion on the web. They were asked to post party propaganda about government policies and to help authorities deal with crises.

On June 28, the police headquarters and county government office in Weng'an county of southwest Guizhou province were assaulted and torched by protesters angry over alleged police mishandling of the death of a 15-year-old female student.

As part of its crackdown on the protests, authorities launched a behind-the-scenes Internet campaign that was later reported by the Chinese media. The China News Weekly reported at the time,
In less than one hour after the incident, video clips and pictures at the scene were pasted on the Internet. That evening, rumors began to spread in online chat rooms and blogs attracting angry responses among netizens. But at the same time, some posts refuting rumors also began to appear on websites. Most of these posts came from the propaganda group under the ad hoc headquarters set up to deal with the incident. The major task of the propaganda group was to organize commentators to past posts on websites to guide online public opinions.
What the report failed to mention was that while official commentators flooded the websites with pro-government postings, the Internet police in Weng'an were also busy deleting any posts deemed anti-government. As a result, it looked as if public opinion on the Internet overwhelmingly supported the government. It wasn't until four days later that the local government held a press conference to address the incident.

In recent years, there have been negative reports, particularly on the Internet, about abuse of power by Chinese police. In Jiaozuo city, in central Henan province, the local police have responded by hiring web commentators to combat such negative news.

In August 2007, a Jiaozuo resident, who was said to have been given a fine by traffic police, posted an accusation against local police for abusing their power. This was immediately followed by many other posts critical of the local police. But, when the discontent was discovered by a government commentator 10 minutes later, it was immediately reported to the police. As the Jiaozuo Daily reported, "The Public Relations Department of Jiaozuo Public Security Bureau immediately organized 120 of its appointed web commentators to post on the Internet, explaining what really happened. So 20 minutes later, opinions on the Internet turned to support the police in that case ... "

The list of similar incidents is long.

The huge number of official web commentators is evidence that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has attached great importance to the Internet. In President Hu Jintao's words the Internet is "an increasingly important channel of public opinions". So far the CCP's policy has been to control and manipulate public opinion, and its grip on the Internet is increasingly tight. According to Data Center of China Internet (DCCI), the number of Internet users in the country reached 221 million in the first half of this year. Understandably, to police such an enormous mass of activity requires a considerable army.

But the effectiveness of the "Five Mao Party" remains problematic. The saturation of official views very often disgusts ordinary Chinese Internet users.

"It is easy to identify who are members of the 'Five Mao Party'," said a frequent Internet user in Shenzhen. "When they become dominant in an online chat room, I simply switch to another. Even if you want to make a point, you don't need to use so many people to repeat it,

It may be necessary for the government to monitor the Internet in order to screen indecent messages and pictures and to watch out for illegal activities, a sociology researcher in Beijing told Asia Times Online. From this perspective, it is understandable that so-called "supervisors" are outsourced to help.

However, it may not be such a wise idea for the government to employ so many web commentators in order to manufacture online opinions under pseudonyms and disguised as ordinary bloggers. The government already controls the traditional media, and almost all news providers on the Internet are sanctioned by the government.

In fact, if any government agency finds false accusations on the Internet it can directly deny the claims in its own name and in straightforward terms. Using anonymous commentators gives the impression that the government is afraid to face the truth, the Beijing researcher said.

"If the government could release information promptly, why does it need the help of the 'Five Mao Party' to spread it on the Internet, which could simply be taken as online rumors?" he said. "Like in the Weng'an case, how come it took four days for the government to prepare a press conference?"

The unflattering nickname of the "Five Mao Party" already illustrates the dislike and distrust that China's web users have for the propagandists-for-hire that are increasingly encountered on the Chinese Internet, he said.

Note 1. To view the article, click here.

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