For years reports have circulated about the Chinese Communist Party’s Internet militia, a “50 Cent Party” whose members allegedly receive that sum every time they make an Internet post about the glories of Chinese communism, or argue against a fellow citizen with incorrect thoughts toward the regime.
And for years, little was known about the inner operations of this group: how much they are really paid, how their work is divvied up; what techniques they employ, and how they break into the profession.
A recent, extensive interview between now captive Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and a member of this army of “Web commentators” surfaced several weeks ago. It reveals in depth how the sophisticated operation of deception, or “public opinion channeling” in the words of Party leader Hu Jintao, plays out across the Internet.
A partial translation of the interview was provided by China Media Project, while The Epoch Times translated other parts from the original Chinese.
Each day Web commentators can expect to receive notice of their tasks through a group on QQ, a ubiquitous Chinese chat client, or via e-mail. It may cite specific incidents—such as complaints about inflation, or a natural disaster—and propose targeted propaganda remedies.
One individual, or a small group, is made responsible for certain websites. The young male interviewed by Ai Weiwei, called only “W.” worked on electronic bulletin boards. W. spent much of his time online for his regular job, and the part-time propagandizing fit in with his skills and schedule. He was referred to the job by a friend—and though he works at it several hours a day, the pay is a modest 600 yuan a month (US$90).
The higher-ups set the desired “ideological orientation” that discussion should follow. “You go and channel the ideas of Web users toward that orientation, or you go and blur the focus of Web users, or you might go and stir the emotions of Web users [over some issue],” W. explained in the interview.
Once the orientation is set, the commentator then begins digging for news or arguments that reinforce it. “This requires a lot of skill. You must hide your own identity. And you can't write in too official a way,” W. says.
The task can also become schizophrenic for the propagandist in the trenches. “You have to write articles of many different styles. Sometimes this means talking, fighting, and disputing with yourself. Essentially, it's about creating a facade and then channeling Web users over to you. The art of doing this is actually quite profound,” he said.
In one case he wore three hats: the “leader,” the “follower,” and the “observer.” Each adopts a distinct stance when entering the debate, while the opinion manipulator carefully controls the language and arguments of each character to bestow varying levels of credibility.
After a lengthy argument has been conducted, the “leader” is to emerge with “strong evidence” that ultimately draws public opinion over to his stance—one designed to be helpful to the authorities overall propaganda aims.
“There are times when I feel my personality is quite split,” W. remarks.
Above it all is one requirement, “Understanding clearly what the guiding ideology of your superiors is.” This informs the rest of the Web commentators’ activities.
W. estimates that 60 to 70 percent of his time is spent trying to tamp down the complaints about local issues: petitioners, those trying to sue local officials for abuses, and other matters relating to “social stability.”
China Media Project observes that the strategy of using Web commentators to channel public opinion is a distinct development of Hu Jintao’s propaganda and media policy.
Instead of always resorting to the blunt techniques of simplistic censorship and blocking—though an enormous amount of that still takes place—China’s communist leaders can give the appearance of a pluralistic space for Internet opinion, while at the same time manipulating it in the authorities’ favor.