As surveillance of online activity increases, China builds a professional cyber army to control how citizens think, and to spread propaganda globally.
Documents recently obtained by Bitter Winter shed light on China’s escalating campaign to control the conversation on digital media. Sensitive information is blocked, users who post online complaints are restricted or suspended, Twitter users in mainland China have been summoned for questioning or arrested.
Perhaps most significant, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities are expanding and professionalizing Internet commentator system to be increasingly rigorous, grassroots-oriented, and targeted.
These commentators, hired by authorities, are often referred to as the “50 Cent Party.” They usually pose as ordinary Internet users, post content beneficial to the CCP government, and attack or criticize comments and views that are detrimental to the government. The nickname originated in 2004, when Internet commentators hired by the Publicity Department of the Changsha Municipal Party Committee were supposedly paid a monthly base salary of 600 RMB (about $87) and an additional 5 jiao per post. (Five jiao (or mao, which is one tenth of Chinese yuan), is equivalent to 50 fen, hence the term “50 Cent Party”.)
Bitter Winter obtained a copy of a county-level Party strategy to grow and professionalize the Internet commentators. The document, titled the Scheme for the Division of Responsibility of the Rectification Work According to the Sixth Central Inspection Team’s Feedback, was issued by a county CCP committee in Heilongjiang Province in China’s far northeast. The document emphasizes,
The Party must:
- strengthen online public opinion work
- strengthen the construction of a team to guide online public opinion
- plan and construct a four-level cascade-style online commentator team (expert, core, backbone, and foundational)
- increase the online commentator team’s rapid response capabilities through professional training and offensive/defensive drills
- strive to build a ‘cyber army’ with strong politics, good professional skills, and style, and that can fight and win.
The key takeaway of this document is the effort to professionalize the government-hired Internet commentator role to maximize its effectiveness. Until recently, these “50 Cent Party” commentators were more of an informal network than an efficient machine, most working part-time and in an uncoordinated fashion. According to media reports, only 15 to 20 percent of the more than 10 million state-backed online commentators are full-time.
That model is changing. Today, even local neighborhood authorities are required to employ full-time online commentators. Another document obtained by Bitter Winter, the Report for the First Half of 2018 on the Implementation Status of the Ideological Work Responsibility System and issued by a sub-district office in Yingkou city, in the northeastern province of Liaoning, makes this point clear. The Report states that because “new online media have a huge impact on ideology,” the Sub-district Party Work Committee and the Sub-district Office must establish full-time online commentators.
Overseas, China’s online propaganda effort is also becoming more professional and targeted. Bitter Winter obtained a copy of the Three-Year Attack Plan for the Anti-Xie-Jiao Online Battle. The document, issued by a county in southern China, orders county officials to take their information warfare international. Authorities are to:
- “Conduct overseas anti-xie-jiao online commenting work…” “Based on the needs of battle, post comments and attacks on the provincial-level external propaganda websites and overseas versions of new media platforms…”
- “Establish an Internet commentator team that is appropriate for the Anti-Xie-Jiao Online Battle, is proficient in Internet slang and ‘invisible propaganda,’ and can become a unique force in cracking down on xie jiao organizations such as Falun Gong and The Church of Almighty God…”
- “Establish a public opinion guidance team on new media platforms, and use new Internet technology and new applications to expand the influence of the Anti-Xie-Jiao Online Battle.”
Xie jiao, or heterodox teachings, are religious movements, regarded by the CCP as dangerous, and not “really” religious. Therefore, they are prohibited and persecuted in China; being active in a xie jiao is punishable with severe jail penalties.
The CCP uses online commentators to guide overseas public opinion and launches attacks and smear campaigns against specific religious groups. The Three-Year Attack Plan cited above is evidence that the overseas propaganda operation is becoming increasingly sophisticated and bold.
Xi Jinping is said to have declared in 2013 that the Internet had “already become major hidden trouble.” Following this statement, he established the Central Leading Group for Cybersecurity and Informatization, which he personally leads. Since then, the CCP has elevated its efforts to manage and control the Internet to new strategic heights, adding several million personnel to the task. These new millions of engineers and communicators are in addition to the 10 million or more “50 Cent Party” members.
Chang Ping, a veteran Chinese journalist, living in Germany, wrote online: “No matter how effective the ‘50 Cent Party’ is, they cannot be justified or defended, because their work lacks legitimacy. Enemy states may employ secret intelligence organizations, but mobilizing large numbers of citizens to ‘dress up in disguise’ and manipulate opinions by pretending to be someone from the other side — that’s unacceptable.”
Reported by Piao Junying