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Chinese Soft Power and the Fifty Cent Internet Army

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Chinese Soft Power and the Fifty Cent Internet Army

“Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate” -Sun Tzu, The Art of War

In the age of a vast ecosystem of readily accessible media, it has become paramount to manage public opinion.

Gone are the days of three TV channels which operated from dawn until dusk, and then offered nothing more than ‘white noise’ to its listeners.

In modern society, however, it would appear that we are all too often at the mercy of information. The bombarding of images, messages and news can be overwhelming.

One of the most pressing concerns for business and governments alike is monitoring that information as well as the public opinion of that information and products.

With an abundance of access to information including quotes, facts and statistics, the prudent monitoring and management of information is an essential weapon in any arsenal for image management and damage control.

Modern day China, it could be said, is rising to this challenge.




China – Harnessing the Power of the Media Age

In self-exile for such a protracted period of time, the Chinese are playing catch up in the media game.

Just 40 years ago, Chinese cities were filled with large speakers proclaiming Mao’s thoughts and much like in the novel 1984 by Orwell – media was tightly controlled as well.

While the media is still monitored and controlled, China has found that as a major global player, it must extend its propagandist reach to all four corners of the globe.

In one of their most recent attempts to date, the Chinese government rented air time and splashed pro-China ads over 6 large screens in Times Square from early January through mid February (1) of this year.

This series of displays (2) ran 300 times a day, giving those walking or driving through the area a total of over 84,003 glimpses of the newer and friendlier China. In order to catch the attention of the US consumers, the images featured Chinese icons such as Yao Ming and Jackie Chan (4).

However, the charm offensive did not stop there.

Xinhua, frequently thought of as the mouthpiece of China’s communist party, is reportedly leasing a 60×40 banner in the north side of Times Square (5), which occupies a storied location (6).

The push, or so it would seem, is to woo the American populace, while presenting the image of a newer and more peaceful China. With over 40% of Americans viewing China as a serious problem (7), it would appear that the communist party has a tall order ahead of them.

china top gun

Chinese Propagandists Are Behind the Times

One of the major stumbling blocks for the Chinese communists is that their history and a single-party form of governance has not catalyzed the ability to creatively reach the masses, although they have tried.

For example, a recent faux pas shows just how far behind the times the Chinese really are.

In an attempt at showcasing the innovation in China’s military, a video was shown highlighting the abilities of one branch of their armed forces. At one point in the video, an exciting scene splashed across the screen, replete with the clashing of fighter jets, resulting in a marvelous explosion.

Unfortunately for Beijing, it was soon discovered that the fighter jet in question was not really from China, and the clip was found to be stock film footage from the movie Top Gun (8).

It was removed within hours of the embarrassing discovery (9).

Embarrassing as this was, it was better than China’s reporting that the US Congress was going to leave Washington DC, a news tidbit the communist party had read and believed in the satirical site, The Onion (10).

Yes, it has been a long road to hoe for the Chinese communists, who by virtue of their power are not accustomed to being questioned and having inconsistencies pointed out.

china internet

Soft power and China

China’s charm campaign has sprung from the fact that over half of the world is viewing the rise of Beijing with apprehension (11). Although Beijing has stepped up its efforts to promote her ‘peaceful rise’, thus far it has not gotten through.

Undaunted by negative press – covering everything from China’s handling of the one child policy, religion (12), Tibet and corruption – China marches boldly on.

One of China’s biggest concerns – but also one of its greatest opportunities – is the Internet.
Historically, China controlled all media outlets, which offered different challenges than controlling the more prolific “net” of of today.

No longer is a printing press needed to pen a work that potentially reaches hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens.

China fears the keyboard and mouse more than many other weapons, as they have seen the havoc it can bring to the country.

Although China’s great wall does a great job of censoring information, they still rely on brute force (13) and threats (14) to remove all ‘objectionable content’.

However, necessity being the mother of invention, the Chinese have created their Internet “army”: 五毛黨; pinyin: wǔmáo dǎng or ’50 centers’ as they are known.

50 cent

China’s “Fifty Cent” Internet Army

China has developed the ‘fifty center’ Internet army. The fifty centers are Internet posters that are paid 5 jiao, or 50 Chinese cents, to write posts at online forums, blogs and other websites, that are favorable to the Chinese government.

They are seen today by the Chinese communists as a critical resource for swaying public opinion.

The genesis of the fifty centers allegedly sprung up from a Chinese University’s need to control anti-Communist party rhetoric within the college BBS system.

The president of the University sought out party loyal students to create an ecosystem of positive party posts, all to maintain order and control.

Fast forward two years, and the “fifty cent” army became official.

In a public speech in 2007, China’s communist party leader and President Hu JinTao (15) called upon, “…comrades who had an elevated level of awareness” to form “teams of Internet commentators” who had:

“…good ideological and political character, high capability and familiarity with the Internet to form teams of Web commentators … who can employ methods and language Web users can accept to actively guide online public opinion (16).”

The goals for the group were to influence public opinion and damage control.

The very nature of the 200-300,000 member group allows for flexibility. The “army” can be called upon in a moments notice, and can be utilized in a proactive manner to push the pro-China, pro-communist agenda.

After all, it is much easier to convince people that everything is fine when the ‘net is filled with plaudits of the Chinese economy and communist party’s achievements.

When done correctly, this method can be utilized to bury dissent beneath a sea of positivity.

Their collective force can also be mustered to curtail the potentially dangerous social media frenzy often associated with bad news.

As the government fears mass uprisings more than it fears attack from abroad (17), a flash mob scenario of apocalyptic proportions is what keeps Beijing awake at night. Therefore, the fifty centers can be used collectively to quash dissenting opinions before they become a problem.

china alert

When There Are Lemons, China Makes Lemonade

One example of how China uses this army to also manage negative internal news is the Wenzhou train wreck that killed an estimated 40 people. Paid Internet posters would target the good that the party had done in saving the survivors.

As it would be next to impossible to impede the overall negativity surrounding such an disastrous event, the goal of the party was supposedly to soften the blow, by issuing directives that the proponents of the party needed to have emphasized.

The impact of this technique is that even though a state-owned-enterprise may be at fault for an event, the party can still emerge as helpful and even victorious.

Numerous examples of such Chinese propaganda can be found online.

“The Problem With the Fifty Cent Party” – an excellent article by Mike Elgan (18) – proposed that the although managing public opinion is not a new thing, in the sheer scope that China is currently embracing it, the results could be disastrous.

In the piece, the author states that the enormous size of the Chinese fifty cent force, the fact that this is their sole occupation, and its impressive level of high-level organization is very scary.

Add to all of this the fact that most people on the Internet are ignorant of the Fifty Centers, so the group can hit online discussions when people least suspect it.

Perhaps it is this last point that is the most disturbing.

The Fifty Centers seem to have morphed, and instead of merely posting as a Chinese from China, they now post as “foreigners” as well.

The ‘net is alive (19) with comments made by people claiming to be Americans, but whose English is beyond suspect. The goal, it would seem, is to convince us from within that China is not that bad, and that perhaps we may be overreacting to her rise.

However, the problem for these online posters is the fact that their language skills and intense party loyalty can betray them.

fifty cent

Pushing Communisty Party Loyalty

Although the fifty centers are ‘professionals’ insofar as they are paid for their work, they are still trained to push communist party doctrine.

This stringent support of the party ideology can expose itself quickly within the writings of an online author.

One of the biggest nuisances with the exploits of the fifty centers is that we can lose touch with the reality of true public opinion, both foreign and domestic.

The more active the fifty centers become, the less we have a true idea of what the “man in the street” is thinking.

Although it can be said that polls and data can and always have been manipulated, as Mr. Elgan has written, not to this extent.

An interesting exercise to identify Fifty Centers is to troll the Amazon.com boards for feedback on books that may spark the nationalistic zeal that the Chinese sometimes exhibit.

Topics such as the freedom of Tibet, Taiwan and the venerable Chairman Mao are good choices.

Interestingly enough, I have found that when choosing a book on China, the customer ratings become somewhat useless.

The reason for this is that as many respondents have pointed out, such places are a haven for the Fifty Cent party. For instance, an anti-China book with a negative book review will receive an inordinate amount of ‘1’ votes, and any feedback that seems to promote the pro-China agenda will get voted up.

The book reviews themselves quickly become arguments on public policy, the legacy of Mao and the realities of China.

Thus, not only can books that are identified as being anti-China receive many more negative reviews then they merit, but the ‘helpfulness’ rating of their comments can as well (20).

The only way to overcome this situation is to be aware of it, and to more mindful of such things when reading about issues regarding China on the Internet.

The amorphous nature of the Fifty Center party, after all, can be misleading.

A prudent course when reading about potentially contentious issues regarding China can be summed up in the following excerpt from a Amazon.com customer review.

“I think one thing that we need to understand is that the government in China pays people to spend time on the web either arguing their point of view or shutting down websites that they disagree with. This includes websites like Amazon, IMDB (which is blocked in China), Wikipedia and others.”

The writer then concludes with the warning that everyone living in a free society should heed:

“So be aware, when reading reviews or comments that any attack on a work that has awkward English or takes a sloppy approach to evidence is likely that of a wu fen. So long as the government pays them by the post and not by the quality of the post it should remain clear who is expressing a personal opinion worthy of considering and who is exporting propaganda.”

These days, it is now up to the discerning reader to identify such propaganda whenever and wherever it rears its ugly head.

References:
–> (1) http://blogs.wsj.com/metropolis/2011/01/18/pro-china-ad-debuts-in-times-square/
–> (2) View here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ib0GUVSlc8Q&feature=player_embedded
–> (3) Ibid
–> (4) Ironically enough three of the most memorable figures in the ads are now US citizens and 7 others have permanent US resident cards (ibid) which may say more about China than the ads themselves.
–> (5) http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/07/26/industry-us-media-xinhua-timessquare-idUSTRE76P71T20110726
–> (6) http://finance.yahoo.com/news/Chinas-news-agency-leases-apf-2550113391.html?x=0&.v=2
–> (7) Ibid supra
–> (8) http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-01-30/china-tries-to-pass-top-gun-footage-as-military/1923476
–> (9) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-12321492
–> (10) http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/cutline/chinese-air-force-drill-looks-awfully-similar-top-20110131-082655-037.html
–> (11) http://www.asianews.it/news-en/China-launches-%E2%80%9Ccharm%E2%80%9D-campaign-to-clean-up-its-image-21194.html
–> (12) http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/chinas-repression-undoes-its-charm-offensive/2011/03/24/AFdlxRYB_story.html
–> (13) http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/402e52b8-e1ea-11e0-9915-00144feabdc0.html?ftcamp=rss#axzz1YRCCAZua
–> (14) http://factsanddetails.com/china.php?itemid=232
–> (15) On January 23, 2007, Chinese leader Hu Jintao demanded for a “reinforcement of ideological and public opinion front construction and positive publicity” at the 38th collective learning of Politburo.[12]
–> (16) http://itmanagement.earthweb.com/columns/executive_tech/article.php/3795091/How-Chinas-50-Cent-Army-Could-Wreck-Web-20.htm
–> (17) China spends more money on policing her country than on her military.
–> (18) http://itmanagement.earthweb.com/columns/article.php/3795091/How+Chinas+50+Cent+Army+Could+Wreck+Web+2.0.htm –> (19) Chinadaily.com.cn forums are ripe with this sort of tactic- allegedly
–> (20) From amazon.com

Image Credit: Cipe.org, NY Daily News, Techaxav.com, mt-soft.com, Chinalert.com

Originally published on TopSecretWriters.com

  • Anonymous

    First of all, I’m not a big China fan, and a frequent critic of its regime. 
    But there seems to be a problem that the author thinks all Chinese people but those paid 50 cent Internet army, are always critical to anything about China, so all of the comments in Chinglish with favorable attitude toward the Communist Party, are mostly paid posts from the 50 centers. Right?
    So how can one distinguish a 50 center from an ordinary Chinese, with the same poor English skill, who sometimes want to say something positive about China or the CCP?
    It also seems that those books on Amazon, if critical of China regime, can not be challenged or negatively reviewed. Right?
    Whatever the CCP do in China or overseas, no matter how absurd it is, can not be 100% wrong. So if a Harvard professor defend China’s economic or trade policy, he may be paid 50 cents?
    And whatever a book critical of China says, no matter how rational it is, can not be 100% right. The Coming Collapse of China, a book by Forbes’ Gordon Chang in 2000, is now often a laughingstock and a source of negative ratings all over the world.

  • Hi Howard. I think you’ve focused on only one deciding factor that WC mentioned, and you’ve ignored others – such as whether the posts provide good, strong evidence to support claims. Clearly, a Harvard professor would have no problem backing up his or her claims with solid evidence. It’s pretty obvious to me when one of those 50 Center propagandists fire up their keyboards.

  • LewisCannon

    That China censors the internet and the news in general is
    well-known. How it goes about it isn’t. Or at least it wasn’t until Mark Newham
    voyaged deep into the heart of the Chinese propaganda machine to find out and report back
    in his hugely illuminating and highly entertaining book ‘Limp Pigs and the
    Five-Ring Circus’. Strongly recommended reading for anyone seeking the inside
    story on the lengths to which China will go to manipulate the news to its own
    advantage.

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