How Real (and effective) is the Fifty-Cent-Party?

I hadn’t seen anything that might count as real evidence before. (Maybe that is because I didn’t pay much attention to the theory anyway.) But Michael Bristow of the BBC quoted an official paper four days ago, and that looks somewhat more substantial. According to Bristow’s article, local authorities started hiring commenters some years ago as they could no longer rely on Beijing to censor every piece of unfavorable information on the internet, especially about rather local incidents or quarrels.

A document released by the public security bureau in the city of Jiaozuo in Henan province boasts of the success of this approach. It retells the story of one disgruntled citizen who posted an unfavourable comment about the police on a website after being punished for a traffic offence. One of the bureau’s internet commentators reported this posting to the authorities within 10 minutes of it going up.

The bureau then began to spin, using more than 120 people to post their own comments that neatly shifted the debate. “Twenty minutes later, most postings supported the police – in fact many internet users began to condemn the original commentator,” said the report.

It’s not unlikely that the story of the Fifty-Cent Party (五毛党) started on domestic Chinese commenter threads. If this propaganda tool is real, more evidence will probably emerge within the coming months.

If such a tool seems to be effective to the Chinese Communist Party, I have no doubt they are making use of it. Twisting propaganda is an unpleasant tool, but has probably been operated by many agencies in the past and presence. German author Heinrich Böll was under the influence or even worked for the “Congress for the Freedom of the Culture” – that’s what this website suggests anyway, and I’ve heard about that on German TV before, too. You may suggest agents and moles in every place which is about power and money, if you are leery by nature.

Fifty-Cent Party has become a handy cuss in commenter threads concerning China. I’m still wondering if it takes fifty cents (or any bonus) for commenting in favor of the CCP. (It may however increase a sense of helplessness.) I suppose that at least on international websites, many comments by ethnic or national Chinese that promote Beijing’s views may be the result of successful indoctrination during the time they lived in mainland China. Even ethnic Chinese with foreign passports may have felt frustrated this year, during the sometimes messy Olympic torch rallye. And culture shocks or a feeling of alienation may also drive pro-Beijing commenters (even people without any Chinese backgrounds of themselves).

As for such comments on international websites, I think we should be aware of the possibility that some commenters are in fact paid commenters. But I doubt you can usually identify them as such, or only very rarely. And really, I don’t think that it really matters all that much. What matters is the power of the points a commenter makes. Propaganda can be effective to some extent, but it can’t reverse the effects of failed policies, and it can’t sell bad products in the long run. An argumentation is either convincing, or it is not. Education, open-mindedness and freedom of information, rather than propagandistic training, are the key factors. Personally, I believe that a story is either well-researched and well-told and draws a crowd, or it sucks. Most of we might think of as Fifty-Cent-Party content  sucks, because it comes across as defensive, mortified, and dogmatic.

It makes no sense to accuse any commenter of being a paid one without good evidence (see comment number 8 there). Ricelee (comment number 7 there) could retort an “Epoch Times” allegation (which wouldn’t be flattering either, and just as pointless).

How effective would a Fifty-Cent-party tool be on domestic websites within China, as described with the Jiaozuo Police example? I’m not sure – but I believe that most Chinese readers can sense the smell immediately, and if they aren’t great friends of the Communist Party, I doubt that the deluge of comments in favor of the police has had the desired effect on them. [update insertion: (It may however increase a sense of helplessness of the initial, critical commenters.) ]

So, no matter if the Fifty-Cent Party is real or not, I don’t think it will become a decisive propaganda tool.

10 Responses to “How Real (and effective) is the Fifty-Cent-Party?”

  1. I assure you that China’s web commentators are very real. I’ve written about them in more detail here:
    http://www.feer.com/essays/2008/august/chinas-guerrilla-war-for-the-web
    The more recent BBC piece you refer to bears superficial resemblance to mine, but lacks the depth.

    Of course, the degree to which they can be effective is an open question.

    Best,
    David

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  2. Hi David,
    thanks for the advice.

    Like

  3. The “fifty cent party” is as real as the “five cents (USD) party” or the “five hundred yen party”, at least, most Chinese people believe that. But in my opinion, none of these has a lot of basis in truth.

    Seriously, it’s sad that some people are such ideological hard heads. Why is it so frigging hard to believe that there are people who don’t buy into the whole “democratic west free and prosperous” bullshit?

    I assure you, despite being brain washed by CNN and BBC and CBC and rest of the like for the past decade of my life, I still support CCP’s authoritarian rule in China. I have lived under them; I have friends and family who still live under them; I did the comparison and contrast; I did all the thinking most ideological die-hards refuse to do—-and I came to a logical conclusion. So stop trying to blame it on wumaodang, or indoctrination, or cultural shock. Don’t be ridiculous: at least I know well and have experienced both ways, and I would be deluding myself to think that can be said of most Americans crying “free Tibet”.

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  4. Hmmm… I’d say this old post is fair and balanced. It leaves the question rather open if there is a Wumaodang or not (though personally, I do believe that the phenomenon of paid commenters exists), and I don’t refer to any individual honest brainwashed person as “Wumaodang”, unless I see evidence.
    However, I think it is a misconception to think of freedom and prosperity as “Western”. You can reject them of course, but personally, I think that you should find better reasons before doing so.

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