It has been long known that shady agencies within the Chinese Communist Party operate networks of paid online agitators, whose job it is to surf the net, sniff out dissent, and “guide public opinion” in favor of the regime.
The name is the “fifty cent party,” or “wumao dang” in Chinese, because they are paid a putative fifty cents for each post they leave on electronic bulletin boards and social media websites defending the regime and attacking its critics.
But what was not known is the deep reach and extent of the penetration of these activists online, their clear official, institutional backing, and their numbers.
Now, two documents, both from universities in China, both produced recently, appear to shed a light on these issues. The documents indicate that they were produced by the Communist Youth League, and said that the youth league oversees about 10 million of these individuals, 4 million of them in universities and colleges. The league is a kind of training ground for the Communist Party proper, and a way for the regime to reach into and mobilize China’s youth.
Tables in both documents provide a breakdown of its distribution around the country. Shandong Province, for example, has 780,000 online propagandists, followed by 680,000 in Sichuan, 670,000 in Henan, 630,000 in Guangdong and 600,000 in Jiangsu, the documents claims.
One of the papers, from Hegang Teachers College in Heilongjiang Province in far north China, is titled “The Duty of Young Online Volunteers from Different Provinces in Bringing Civilization to the Internet.” The talk of “civilization” is a coded reference to suppressing anti-Party thoughts.
It provides a stark explanation of the task and aims of these Internet propagandists—and also their intended spread.
Every provincial, city, and county-level youth league organization must have 20 percent of its members participating in online propaganda, it states. “The battlefront at universities and colleges must cover every campus. At least 20 percent of Youth League members at each campus must participate.”
The “main tasks” of these ideological “online volunteers” are to, first, “spread positive energy online.” Positive energy, of course, means pro-Party. As such, online discussions should revolve around “the China Dream, pushing forward with reforms, promoting the rule of law, innovation, social justice, etc.”
Another key activity they are to engage in is “combat hostile energy.” These are defined as posts that “go against socialist core values,” or “are not amenable to the unity of the people.” Such information should be “resolutely resisted, proactively refuted, and eagerly reported to Internet authorities.”
This is not the first time that the Communist Youth League has been linked to online agitation and propaganda—the Taiwanese media UDN last August linked a college student engaging in fifty cent activity to the youth league, and citizens in Hong Kong have made similar allegations online.
Hu Jia, a prominent rights activist in China, said in an interview with Radio Free Asia that “The Chinese regime needs to fill the Internet with propaganda, and people call the fifty centers the Party’s ‘Internet navy.’ Most wumao actually aren’t volunteers—though there are probably some die-hards in there.”
Xu Wenli, an exiled scholar and the convenor of the China Democracy Party, said in an interview with RFA that the use of fifty cent commentators resembles the kind of ideological mobilization seen under Mao, and compared Party leader Xi Jinping unfavorably with Mao’s violent legacy.
Xu added: “We’ve all been through youth, and know what it’s like to be stirred up by narrow ideologies. It doesn’t even necessarily require money. Yet using young people to be Internet warriors is a huge poison to society—turning them into snitches on their teachers and schoolmates.”
Despite the aims of the youth league, though, it is unclear whether the group is actually successful in mobilizing the vast numbers of people it claims it controls.
Wen Yunchao, a New York-based researcher of Chinese Internet control, said, “Judging by the distribution of those youth league numbers, they have no fighting power. It’s nothing to worry about.”
The simple mass of people involved means that “it’s very hard to actually get orders carried out, and the youth league has little means of enforcement.”