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China's Internet awash with state spies

August 15, 2008

By Wu Zhong, China Editor
Asia Times
Aug 14, 2008

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.
<http://www.feer.com/essays/2008/august/chinas-guerrilla-war-for-the-web>
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