If one wonders why China has not been served its just deserts despite many countries now believing it unleashed coronavirus to decimate the advanced economies of the world, what is even more intriguing is why it does not generate enough aversion even on social media. To solve the riddle, one may look at the opinion-makers Beijing invests in at the same time, a revelation made six years ago internationally. In 2014, The Business Insider (TBI) had revealed that the communist government of China had hired 3,00,000 trolls to create a positive impression worldwide about its communist party (CCP).
It’s not just the Chinese ‘iron curtain’ — a term once used for the Soviet Union that did not let any information it was uncomfortable with outside its borders — that keeps the world oblivious of its wrongs, “it actually pays people to leave fake comments that make the country, and its communist regime, look good,” TBI had said in an 18 October 2014 report.
A book on the Chinese version of Twitter called Weibo, Blocked on Weibo by Jason Q Ng had then revealed Beijing had banned the use of the phrase “50 cents” on finding that the term referred to its “50 Cent Party”, which was a newly formed group of Chinese people their government had hired to post comments on the worldwide web. Its job was to spin everyday news in favour of China.
They got this name as they were paid 50 cents (¥ 5) per post. The Chinese government never denied the existence of this group that continues to operate strategically in places where sending the right message is crucial. To share the load on the Chinese exchequer, some websites and internet providers hire the ‘star performers’.
The strength of the so-called 50 Cents Party is an estimated 2 lakh 50 thousand to 3 lakh, researchers at Harvard University had written in the American Political Science Review in May 2013. “The size and sophistication of the Chinese government’s program to selectively censor the expressed views of the Chinese people is unprecedented in recorded world history,” the authors wrote.
Two years even before that, a memo of the party leaked. This was reported by The China Digital Times. The leaked memo showed the party workers’ job was to project the US as the chief wrongdoer in whichever international development the theory would look somewhat credible. Simultaneously, the party workers would whitewash “the bloody and tear-stained history” of China to create a positive impression about the CCP. At that point, they did it so that the democratic regime of neighbour Taiwan did not influence and challenge the communist rule in China.
Those were not the only sources that corroborated the damning report in TBI. British magazine The New Statesman traced and got hold of one of these hired trolls in 2012, a 26-year-old who said he had “too many usernames” to count, let alone recall from memory. He said the local internet publicity office would send him an email every morning, telling him what news he must spin that day. “It’s kind of psychological … You can make a bad thing sound even worse, make an elaborate account, and make people think it’s nonsense when they see it,” he told the New Statesman’s reporter Ai Weiwei.
But this sinister game of China did not begin in the last decade. It is much older. Earlier, of course, it was more about censoring information. The Golden Shield Project, China’s censorship programme, which the West refers to as the “Great Firewall”, had been established in the middle of the previous decade (2000-2009). Its job was to block foreign websites that threatened the communist rule. Further, it kept a watch on content generated within China and filtered them to avoid a rebellion within its boundaries. If a journalist or a social media user defies the order, he is incarcerated and persecuted further.
Besides, the government of the CCP has been intervening with comments in Chinese social mediums since 2005. They did it during the anti-Japan protests in China, The Economist had reported.
Then-president Hu Jintao had clearly said in 2007 that controlling the internet wasn’t enough; the CCP needed to “use” it as well.
“Sina Weibo’s birth in 2009 forced the 50-Centres to become even more active,” TBI said.
They augmented the exercise in 2014 with the help of China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology by establishing a training centre. Radio Free Asia reported this development. They have been teaching aspiring members on how to orient online discussions.
“There was never this sort of system or professionalisation in the past,” independent website publisher Wang Jinxiang told Radio Free Asia. “It seems that this is a new set of qualifications.”
The censorship-cum-trolling exercise has been managing internal revolts like those in Hong Kong well since 2014.