Access to truth and surfeit of inquiry; The End of the South China Morning Post and legitimate investigative journalism in South Asia.

New South China Morning Post Editor, Wang Xiangwei

Not one media commentator can agree on the exact date when the South China Morning Post’s progression from relevance to inconsequence began, but it’s certainly been an incremental process. Considered one of the best papers in Asia, and certainly the best English Language paper, the SCMP has continually been the source for good investigative journalism in China. From its auspicious start in Asia’s most politically active city, the 109 year old paper is slowly becoming a negligible force, as it grows into the perfect example of China’s vision for a stultified news media.

Perhaps it’s lazy to imply that the rot set in after the paper was bought by the Murdoch Empire back in 1987, but that was certainly when its standing as a community paper was tested. Despite its unethical reputation however, the Murdoch group is guilty only of modernizing and commodifying what was still considered a ‘colonial era’ paper. This inevitable development marked the beginning of a shift towards a ‘corporate face’ and away from the community service that the paper had always provided. It was quickly re-floated as part of the much broader ‘SCMP publishing group’ in the early 90’s and bought by the Malaysian hotelier family, the Kuok’s.

The 90’s were a very sensitive time for press and expressive freedoms in Hong Kong, as after 150 years of separation and a decade after Tiananmen Square, Hong Kong became part of greater China under the “one country two systems” ruling. This was a socially tumultuous and frightening time for the Hong Kong Chinese, many of whom were refugees from violent communist repression. After the hand-over their worst fears were not realized however, Beijing sought to calm Hong Kong’s frightened residents; freedom of speech and assembly were upheld and for the best part of a decade the CCP stayed out of Hong Kong’s political affairs. During this time the South China Morning Post was still considered a reputable paper that made remarkable investigative finds regarding Chinese and Hong Kong politics. It kept politicians honest, and provided divergent and interesting opinions. Most importantly it faithfully served a community interested in improving their English, keeping up to date with the rest of the world and reading voices they could call their own.

Over time however, rumors emerged that the Kuok family, with an eye towards Beijing, had started to use their positions on the board of directors to effect a change in the editorial style. One after the other, newly hired and reputable editors quit the paper, meanwhile the contracts of many award winning foreigners and liberal-leaning locals were allowed to expire or had their work made impotent by the constraints of the Kuoks. In the interim, the gaps left by foreigners and disgruntled leftists were filled by staff from mainland propaganda papers. Some of these new journalists have barely attempted to hide their distaste for Westernism and Hong Kong’s distinct culture and they certainly have effected a change in the ideological output.

Protest over Li Wangyang’s death and the subsequent ‘cover-up’

Consumer and industry unhappiness with the paper’s direction had been building for the better part of a decade, but the seemingly politically minded layoffs of liberal and foreign staff were just a precursor to the concerns of CCP involvement. Notably, the recent appointment of a new editor, the 10th in as many years led to real problems for the paper’s reputation; claims of blatant censorship have blighted his tenure. It certainly didn’t help that he was a communist insider connected to media censorship committees, but in this case his actions was soon to speak louder than his reputation. Wang Xiangwei, was mainland born and had previously wrote for the very pro-Beijing, ‘China Daily’, and the mentioning of this past made up the initial extent of complaints against him. But after the 2012 anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, real public anger about his editorship started to formulate. Notably, when he intervened to scupper a front page story on the suspicious death of Tiananmen era dissident Li Wangyang, the SCMP stood out as the only paper not to cover the issue. When bluntly asked to explain his decision by a senior sub-editor, Xiangwei’s furious response was leaked to the media and placed the paper on the covers of newspapers around the world for all the wrong reasons.

Then out of the woodwork came a letter of protest from a recently dismissed journalist, Paul Mooney, who condemned Xiangwei and the Kwok family as censors. On the editor’s proclivity to censor his work Moodey stated, “For seven months, he had basically blocked me from writing any China stories… some two dozen suggestions went unanswered by the China Desk–in one case a story was approved, but the editor told me Wang had overruled him”. On his award winning, anti Beijing article, “silence of the dissidents”, Moodey opined “it sat on China Desk for about three months; a practice I later learned was not uncommon when Wang wanted to let a story shrink in importance”. Around the same time a second letter, signed by 23 previously employed journalists and editors; both local and foreign, was published regarding their worries about the paper’s direction and content. Xiangwei’s response to all of this and to the increasing ridicule and condemnation from local and foreign publications alike was an un-characteristically honest admission of fault in the case of Li Wangyang. Despite this, his protestations that he wasn’t a censor came off as hollow. “If I had a hidden agenda, it would have come out a long time ago”, was his most substantial response; which seems a patently unprovable statement and a poor answer to the very serious charge of media censorship. Another poor excuse from the editor was that ‘because the issue wasn’t being covered in China then the SCMP shouldn’t cover it either’. If nothing else, this was the clearest confirmation so far; that indeed the SCMP would be taking its cues from Beijing from now on.

The results of the SCMP’s content re-jigg have been clear in supporting this assumption; recent high profile articles and opinion pieces on national education, foreign affairs and local politics have all drawn a great amount of criticism and read like pure propaganda. Among the more notable instances; Tammy Tam’s pedestrian interview with the controversial ‘Panchen Lama’, Alex Lo’s angry attacks on protesting high school students and all of Eric X Li’s anti-western tirades, come to mind. It used to be that if you wanted to hear that democracy protesters didn’t deserve their rights, that the Dalai Lama was a dangerous separatists or that Hong Kong people must become more patriotic then you’d turn to the Global Times. Sadly these talking points can now be regularly found on front page and inset of the South China Morning Post.

There is currently no need for another CCP-run English language paper; China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times and People’s Daily all run significant English news departments. At the regional level there are at least a couple more papers spread throughout China too. And since all Chinese publications are required to tow the party line, it means that for the most part they are all ideologically indistinguishable.

If we exclude the South China Morning Post there are no longer any reputable middle-ground or democratic-leaning papers left in Hong Kong. This is bad for Hong Kong’s press freedoms, but it’s also detrimental for journalism as a whole as foreign correspondents and news desks disappear across the world. The South China Morning Post was an invaluable source for un-biased investigative news stories and the gap in the ‘South Asian’ news feed won’t be filled easily.

Tiananmen Anniversary

On the 4th of June every year since 1989, Hong Kong holds the largest annual Tiananmen Square protests on the globe; tens of thousands of democracy protestors, as well as people who just want to remember what happened, fill up Victoria Park in the central suburb of Causeway Bay. The event has never really attracted attention outside of Hong Kong and certainly not in China where even referencing the anniversary is a dangerous taboo.

Regardless, every year, depending on the state of affairs in China, protesters ranging from the tens to hundreds of thousands camp on the grass for a solemn, respectful and passionate display of remembrance. Chants are exchanged, songs sung, speeches from real and escaped martyrs alike are read and most importantly promises are made; that the people of Hong Kong will resolutely stop anything similar to Tiananmen from ever happening in their city.

When I arrived at Victoria Park, late after work on the 4th of this month I had never seen anything like the side of Hong Kong that I saw that night. Many of the protests I had seen previously looked like a parade of the small and disenfranchised; there seemed more police than protestors in attendance. What looked like little more than a few bus-loads of wizened old aunts and uncles carried coloured placards and banged drums as they marched past the lines of disinterested policemen holding back the traffic. The Hong Kong democracy movement seemed in sad and disheartening shape, and I believe that many of the tourists who saw the march that day believed it was for a small religious sect, celebrating a holy day.

But that night, as I descended the escalator from my work, not more than three blocks away, I knew that tonight was different and that I was wrong. The democracy movement in Hong Kong is no small sect and it is obviously July 4th that is their holy day. The streets leading up to the park were more congested than anything I’ve seen in my life, and then my companion and I got to the park itself.

This year was the largest commemoration since 1989, over 180,000 people, not just the people who had lived through Tiananmen, but passionate teenagers too attended. It was not just for Hong Kong natives but also Western, Taiwanese and Chinese people. In the space of time it took us to climb a commanding power box to sit with the photographers, all my misconceptions about Hong Kong people having no social heart, nor any political aspirations, were gone. And as the chants grew louder, the camera flashes flared at once and 80,000 candles rose in union I had the feeling that the entire expanse of what I was seeing was sincere, and right and good and that it dwarfed any admiration I’d had for anything I’d seen in the West since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Outside the sincerity of Victoria Park the cynicism, censorship and cronyism that I’d previously come to attribute to Hong Kong was working hard to dispel the message of the July 4th however. As has come to be expected the police force’s official count for the protest was at least half that of those who turned up, secondly Hong Kong’s pro-Bejing, crony-bound government continued their ‘seen but not heard’ stance when it comes to democracy in Hong Kong. The CEO had no comment regarding the commemoration, nor regarding the claims made therein; that Hong Kong was becoming less democratic and more stifling a place to live, as Beijing has slowly pushed for greater social prevalence in the city.

This years Tiananmen vigil, Victoria Park Hong Kong

At the same time blatant blocks on the Weibo accounts of pro democracy dissidents in China, coupled with attacks on the facebook accounts of many Hong Kong-based democracy protestors, effectively silenced some of the movement’s online voice in the lead up to the event. But that was nothing compared to what was to come. Three days after the protests, just after he had criticized the CPC in his first ever interview, the highly suspicious “accidental death” of Li Wanyang; the longest serving Tiananmen Square inmate did even more damage to Hong Kong- mainland relations.

The new mainland born Editor-in-Chief of the South China Morning Post and high ranking Communist Party member; Wang Xiangwei only served to exacerbate the problem after being accused of the purposeful underwriting of the event to limit the damage to Beijing. Making things worse, a sub-editor’s questioning on the issue resulted in this leaked tirade; “I don’t have to explain to you anything. I made the decision and I stand by it. If you don’t like it, you know what to do.” Two weeks later, after his reply hit the headlines of other publications world-wide, the South China Morning Post ran the issue in full and Mr Wang, shamed by the attention, attempted to talk the rhetoric down from ‘self censorship’ to ‘de-sensationalising’ a story until all the facts were known.

Considering all of this; that their government doesn’t care about their freedoms, that activists are still being threatened, censored and possibly killed and that their own media is being castrated by Beijing, the Li Wanyang issue is the next focal point for visceral levels of discontent in Hong Kong. Originally deemed a ‘suicide’, the angry and unprecedentedly large response to his death by pro- democracy activists in China and specifically in Hong Kong caused a huge CPC back-down and the promise of a criminal investigation. It also bodes well for the July 1st, Hong Kong handover anniversary protests, and you know that I’ll be there for that too.

South China Sea Disputes cont.

Chinese Coastguard vessels in the South China Sea

As discussed in an earlier post, the issue of territorial conflict in the South China Sea between China and its neighbors hasn’t solved itself; again animosity has been prompted by neighboring nations taking affront at Chinese fishing ships working and traveling through contested waters and the naturalized waters of various states. Most recently the Sino-Phillipines wrestling match over the Huangyan Islands/Panatag Shoal as they are known in China and the Philippines has witnessed angry and violent rhetoric and twin cases of dueling Chinese and Philippine public protests.

The issue, much like recent Chinese conflicts with Vietnam, Japan and South Korea arose when Chinese fishing boat captains  challenged coastguard vessels in non- Chinese or contested waters. In this situation a group of boats were seeking shelter from a storm (according the the CPC) when the Philippine coastguard found them and upon and inspection of their cargo attempted to arrest the fishermen on board for the taking of endangered species from the islands. The Chinese fishermen resisted and radioed for help, this then led to a stand off as more Chinese and Philippine coastguard and fishing ships arrived at the scene. Although the chance for further conflict has died down now, the CPC media is still responding strongly to the incident, but is mostly riled up about the Philippine’s territorial claim to the islands. In response to this issue the media has called for a permanent base on the island, has decried the US’s involvement and their enabling of the Philippines, threatened a military response to any Philippine escalation and has crowed over the how much damage China’s reaction has done to the Philippine economy. In spite of this, the CPC has also attempted to paint itself as the honest and good natured victim.

A short China Daily article written in May this year asked for the opinion of various Chinese policy wonks on the topic; their response was relatively uniform; Hong Guo Quan, a writer and director for the CCTV Military Channel said China should hoist “the national flag, establish… the monument of sovereignty, build… military bases, or… a fishery base on the island”. He went on to state that the Islands should pose as an example for “breaking the deadlock”, in all of the South China Sea disputes. Cao Xinglong a Chinese lawyer, stated that China must “win worldwide sympathy” via the use of diplomatic and economic ‘deterrents’ only, while Hu Xijin Editor-in-chief at Global Times very bluntly went a step further in stating “If the Philippines become too provocative and break(s) the peace, they can expect a punch in the face”. These views were not chosen for their differing in opinion; in effect they all make the same point; the CPC will not strike first, knows the Philippines cannot either, but it is willing to escalate the situation in other ways; namely by building a permanent testament to China’s claim on the island and through economic measures.

A China Daily article on the issue written on May 28th summarized the details of Beijing’s stance against the Philippines; stating that the issue is really about the Philippine president “trying to shift attention from his country’s domestic woes”. Further elaborating on this narrative of China’s position, the same article made the case for China’s claim to the islands. Noting that they had been “China’s undisputable territory for centuries”, they went on to argue that the Philippines “did not officially  lay rival claim over it until 1997”. However, in reality and outside of China, this claim is easily disputed; the Philippines placed a flag pole and lighthouse on the island in 1965, furthermore Spanish and American maritime maps from the 18th century back up the Philippine claim. Whereas the first concrete Chinese claim on the Islands was made back in 1935. In its defence of their claim on the islands, China seems aware of its position and the international skepticism towards it, and has rejected the Philippine’s repeated requests to take the dispute to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Nonetheless it is very ready to back up its claims with belligerence, People’s Daily states that “China’s determination to defend its territorial  sovereignty will not be hindered by the “China threat theory”, and that “any country that carries out vexatious acts is doomed to be hit hard no matter if it is weak,  no matter how pitiful it pretends to be”.

The reason for this conflict surfacing now, rather than 70 years ago when the dispute began is that as far back as the 1930’s neither China nor the Philippines (which was not yet outside American, protectorate status) had the resources to secure the islands, neither did they have much reason to, the islands, and in-fact all of the contested waters in the South China Sea weren’t worth much.  China’s coastal fishery stocks are now almost depleted; directly leading to the increase in conflicts between Chinese fishermen and their neighbors. At the same time, huge oil finds are being speculated for in the region; the result is that now Chinese fishing boats and research ships from a plethora of nations are being seen in areas they haven’t before, leading to an increase in confrontations. Increases in mainland pollution and unsustainable fishing practices, as well as the high price of oil and increases in Asian demand for it implies that the issue is only set to get worse as an increasing affluent Asian population seeks out resources.

Considering this, the governments of South East Asia must feel great consternation and a very real sense of destabilization at the rise of China, despite its insistence towards a “peaceful rise”. Regardless of political alliances in the region, China sets its neighbors off balance and asks a lot of them regarding their foreign and domestic policies. Unfortunately the fact that China is willing to also be aggressive on issues like territorial disputes, human rights and diplomatic contact with the US only increases this dis-ease. In the South China Sea, Chinese coastguard vessels are still arresting Vietnamese fishermen for fishing in what they’ve known for generations as their maritime territory. In Korea, Taiwan and Japan, coastguard officers know that attempts to arrest illegal Chinese fishermen in their territories will result in vicious physical confrontations and indignant diplomatic confrontations with Beijing. For smaller nations like Brunei, the Philippines and Malaysia, they now know that holding on to the contested territories that China claims of them puts their economies at extreme risk.

China’s stance on the expanded issue of the South China Sea territorial disputes with Vietnam, Thailand, India, Taiwan, Korea and Japan, as well as the Philippines have been historically similar. The CPC has claimed that their neighbors were the aggressor and then has limited diplomatic relations or sought to punish them economically whilst maintaining a minimum credible force in the area to guard against further action. In the case of the Philippines there has been diplomatic intimidation, with the Philippines ambassador being summoned to explain himself, there is also a very real sense of disproportion in China’s response; the Philippine Navy’s only modern ships are Cold War-era US coastguard vessels. Economic sanctions took the guise of hidden trade restrictions, with the CPC citing “tightening quality controls” on Philippine fruit and purposefully slowing down inspection times, this action has ended up costing Philippine businesses $33.6 million dollars to date. At the same time the CPC has greatly discouraged Chinese tourism to the islands and has implied that Chinese nationals in the country could be attacked. Despite this the Chinese media has been wont to portray China as the one de-escalating the confrontation, Peoples Daily stated that China has adopted an attitude of restraint and has “created a peaceful atmosphere in the South China Sea”. The same article also claimed that China alone should “make rules for the development of the South China Sea area and even the whole Asia”.

The US Navy’s 7th, East Asian Fleet

There are no prizes for guessing who the CPC thinks the guilty party responsible for all of this trouble is; it is of course the United States who is claimed to be provoking their neighbors. A People’s Daily article, entitled “No storm can shake China’s composure”, stated grandly on the topic of the South China Sea that; “China has won the respect and understanding of most neighboring countries for its ability to control itself”. This statement is possibly meant to imply that China’s lack of military action against the Philippines, Vietnam, Korea, Taiwan and Japan is to be lauded as that of a very mature actor; it is a fallacy, China knows it cannot act for fear of US intervention. The article went on to state that the Chinese nation’s “restrained, calm and constructive attitude” has now been taken advantage of by actors encouraged by the US. The previously mentioned China Daily Article from May summarises Beijing’s sentiment perfectly; “with the United States as the puppeteer behind the scenes,Vietnam and the Philippines have chosen to rebuff China’s friendly intentions”. In this statement we see the real quarrel China has with the US, although they have stated they will not get involved, the US Navy doesn’t need to in order to stifle Chinese military activities. The US has forced China to take a more convoluted and less sure path to victory in the South China Sea. It has also allowed the Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Koreans and Philippines (and later if they choose to the Malays and Brunei’s as well) to contest China regarding their own territorial claims, and on a more equal playing field too. The same article states it bluntly; “the Philippines has been emboldened to run amuk… because it thinks it has the military might of the US behind it”. The fault is anyone’s but the US’s however, China’s behavior has obviously been anything but even-handed, and their flat-out refusal to seek mediation at the UN only discredits their “undisputable sovereignty” over the entire Sea further. The West is not trying to “create conflicts between China and its  neighboring countries”, as People’s daily bluntly states, the conflicts already existed and the West is trying to moderate them.

It is China’s behavior in South East Asia that has opened the door for the US’s warm re-entry into the region, despite its bullish behaviors in the past, the US can now play the ‘good guy’ and will win the battle for hearts and minds.

Chinese Support of Assad; duplicitous and obvious

China vetoes the latest condemnation of Syria at the UN

Echoing the tone of many opinion pieces in the Western media, I too was initially confused by China’s outspoken support of the violent Syrian regime, both in the UN and through their press. The brutal year-long crackdown on Arab Spring protestors in the country has had left the Syrian government under ever weightier pressure from the UN and in the world media. This pressure has not only emanated from the West but also from the rest of the world, to the point where, barring Syria’s three active friends; Iran, Russia and China (and the “ALBA” nations of Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua), the United Nations has come together to push for an official condemnation. But nothing has, or will, come of it; the international community’s efforts have been, time and again, vetoed by the small pro-Assad bloc. What is confusing to most is that China’s veto against the anti-Assad measures makes no real sense. China has no strong connections to the regime, nothing to gain from Assad by shielding it, and by supporting Syria, has very publicly isolated itself. All of this is especially confusing when it is noted that Russia was doing enough to protect the Kremlin-friendly Assad regime on its own; China had no tangible reason to get involved.

Looking through recent Chinese media discussion on the issue however, I’m no longer confused by China’s behaviour. Chinese support of Assad seems to have been tied neatly into the CPC’s diplomatic and ideological policy of opposition to the West.

Most blatantly; in papers and news sites across the country, Chinese newspapers have been wont to quote the Syrian state news agency SANA at its word while casting aspersions on other voices. Meanwhile Chinese state media has downplayed the government shelling of civilian areas, continually referred to the rebel groups as “terrorists” and cast aspersions on the credibility and ingenuousness of Western concerns. Journalists in China have not blanketed the conflict completely as they did with the opening half of the Libyan revolution; instead they are speaking out as if in chorus. Their consensus seems to be that regarding outside actors, it is the West and its allies not the Russian and Chinese led pro- Assad bloc that is to blame for the lack of a solution. Citing some nation’s propensity toward arming Syrian rebels and the US and EU’s political actions against Assad, an article from China Daily claimed that their intransigence is “only prolonging the bloodshed and making it harder to reach a peaceful solution”. The article went on to boldly claim that American condemnation of China and Russia’s pro- Assad stance was immoral, “opposing the desires of the Syrian people” and standing in the way of the nation’s stability. It comes as little surprise that the article concluded that contrary to the West, that China’s relationship and attitude towards with the Arab world was sincere, long-established, and in the Arab people’s best interests.

A similar article released late last year, this time about the end of the West’s military involvement in Libya, made the case that Western concerns in Libya amounted to little more than a smash and grab that was also intended to counter  Chinese influence in the region. The article concluded grandly that “the fall of Gaddafi is not the triumph of good over evil, but a triumph of the former colonial rulers in reshaping the African economic map”. This Bush- era conspiracy; that Western democratic altruism is always a cover for financial greed is still quite trendy in China and has been trundled out time and again to attack the Western moral character.

The strategy has also been utilised in the Chinese media to also imply Machiavellian moves by the US to reorder the balance of power in the region re Syria. Multiple Global Times articles released in early 2012 argue for the legitimacy of the Assad government by combating calls for UN intervention, despite the violent human rights abuses perpetrated. These articles claim that American behaviour in the Middle East is simply explained; “crumpling up Syria would mean cutting off an important arm of Iran”, and that China, seeing itself as a marginalised world player “now sees the need to confront it”.

The scapegoating and denigration of the US is a time-honoured practice for the CPC harking back to the days of the Cultural Revolution, though originally it was implied most often on an East Asian scale. As China’s ambitions grow, it is natural that the CPC narrative has the West plotting not just against Chinese people, but now all non Western people’s across the world. Never mind that the actors on the ground most recently in Syria (and previously in Libya) had openly stated that peace with each other was (and should be) unpalatable, making intervention necessary to protect civilians. Forget also that further atrocities have been committed and encouraged while Russian and Chinese political action protected these authoritarian regimes and that US governmental and corporate assistance was vital in keeping Egypt’s recent revolution relatively bloodless. Perhaps there is some truth in Chinese allegations of Western hypocrisy however; the US has supported its fair share of dictators and still does in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other African and Middle Eastern nations. Credibility issues crop up with China’s world view when they claim that Western intervention against dictatorships is wholly calculated though; the moral indignation felt in the West against repressive regimes is certainly real. It can also be argued that political support for authoritarianism after Bush jr. has certainly waned in the West as the political realism that marked the Cold War is slowly being replaced by ‘the peace of democracies’.

Assad and Ahmadinejad

China meanwhile, for all it’s talk of supporting the oppressed people of the world has many close relationships with authoritarian regimes and is one itself, a fact that prompts China to relentlessly ‘square the circle’; it sells itself and its authoritarian friends as nice guy alternatives to the West. The Chinese media has no problem for example implying that Iran’s political system is less repressive and nicer than America’s, or in echoing Tehran’s propaganda; that the Arab Spring protests (which the Iranians ruthlessly crushed in their own country) were inspired by the Ayatollah. The Global Times even argued recently that Western concerns about the obvious corruption and bullying at the vote this year in the Russian elections “is a way for the West to bring about splits in Russian society” and that Putin’s re-election reflected the will of the Russian people.

The PRC has a right to oppose the US through diplomatic channels and through other apparatuses of its soft power base, but it needs to be honest about itself and its complaints against Western hegemony first. Paranoid conspiracies, scapegoating others and obvious acts of duplicity will not win it the morality arm-wrestling match it has engaged in with the West… publicly supporting murderous and callous despots does not help either.

CPC alternatives to censorship

Overn the last decade internet use has spiked in China, from just over half a million users in the mid to late 90’s to over 500 million  now. This huge multitude of people online has no doubt caused Beijing a great deal of anxiety. As a source of public dissent and promulgation of unsanctioned ideas the internet is a real threat to their hegemony. Because of this China has seen a number of solutions to fix the problem of ‘internet freedom’ over the years; in 1997 the CPC first started to regulate the use of the internet, the next year the ‘Golden Shield’ (Great Firewall) project was conceived and completed in 2006/2008. While in 2009 the ‘Green Dam” programme, which called for the mandatory inclusion of surveillance microchips in all new computers almost passed into law.

These solutions all had their limitations; the 1997 regulations only gave China the framework of laws and their prosecution, not the methods for action, the Great Firewall can be circumvented by proxy servers, subverted ideologically through subtlety and sarcasm and served as a focus point for more criticism. Meanwhile, the Green Dam project was a disaster; it was unwieldy and ineffective in many of its parameters, obviously and poorly plagiarised, a potentially huge security risk and poorly disguised an ‘anti-pornography measure’, as such it was unpopular and was scrapped during the testing phase.

The subtleties of the internet seemed to stifle complete control, but at some point, shortly before Green Dam, Beijing stumbled upon the best answer so far and it had nothing to do with new coding or programmes. Beijing’s solution involved the adding of a social element to the equation. In 2004 the Publicity Department of Changsa city, seemingly of their own volition, hired China’s first ‘anonymous internet commentators’; a group whose job was to surreptitiously post positive comments and discredit complaints. Over the next three years this method proved so effective in stifling online dissent that it grew exponentially, organically spreading to different parts of the country and through the different channels of the CPC’s body politic. From every regional and city council to news sites, forums, chat rooms and social networking sites, CPC commentators are now commonly found on foreign news sites too.

An internet commentator conference broadcast on Chinese Television

Originally paid 0.50 Yuan a post, the writers are now popularly (and derisively) known as the “50 Cent Party”, and their goal, according to the head of Guangzhou’s City Inspectors Committee Li Yangui,  is to “track and analyze… public opinion, prevent the spread of undesirable information” and ultimately provide “positive guidance of public opinion”. Highlighting their importance to China’s internet policy, three years after the germination of the concept in 2007 Premier Hu Jintao called for the proliferation of this method at a major politburo conference. CPC support of this method undoubtedly lies in its ability to effectively direct online opinion towards any narrative end almost anonymously. This use of anonymity, rather than just deleting or blocking offensive material, serves to effectively remove the spectre of CPC heavy-handedness and tricks users into thinking the pro-party talking points they’re reading are the unbiased opinions of regular netizens. In a widely circulated, leaked communiqué that says much about the ‘scapegoating’ culture of the CPC, the stated true objective of the ‘50 Centers’ was revealed; to undermine the influence of “Taiwanese democracy”; as if China’s societal problems stemmed from anything Taiwan has done. Included in the supposed missive was also this incredible list of guidelines:

  1.   To the extent possible make America the target of criticism. Play down the existence of Taiwan.
  2. Do not directly confront [the idea of] democracy; rather, frame the argument in terms of “what kind of system can truly implement democracy.”
  3.  To the extent possible, choose various examples in Western countries of violence and unreasonable circumstances to explain how democracy is not well-suited to capitalism.
  4. Use America’s and other countries’ interference in international affairs to explain how Western democracy is actually an invasion of other countries and [how the West] is forcibly pushing [on other countries] Western values.
  5.  Use the bloody and tear-stained history of a [once] weak people [i.e., China] to stir up pro-Party and patriotic emotions.
  6. Increase the exposure that positive developments inside China receive; further accommodate the work of maintaining [social] stability.

Estimations by some experts range anywhere from tens to hundreds of thousands of full and part-time anonymous commentators working in China, according to local Chinese news media some large cities and regions openly employ hundreds of writers. On the other hand, some government and media sources deny the existence of paid commentators. In an interview with the Global Times, a former employee of the Public Security Bureau, Mrs Wang, implied that the 50 Cent Party was really an unorganised collection of pro-party citizens working outside of the state. Contradicting herself, Wang then went on to state that paid commentators are a real phenomenon; “It is necessary to have the commentators because sometimes truth may hurt social stability”.

Despite the occasional denials, the existence of the 50 Cent Party  is considered a well known fact, and the proliferation of the concept seems to imply that it is successful and here to stay. The concept does have its detractors and debateable weaknesses however; Hu Yong in an article by The Global Times argues that the commentators, because they are anonymous, dilute the veracity of their personas and that their very existence only makes “the public more aware of them”. On platforms like Twitter, he says, their anonymity means that “they can’t work if nobody follows them” and if they weren’t anonymous and people knew they are ‘50 Centers’ no one would. He concludes by saying that the ‘50 Cent Party’ has actually damaged the practice of ‘opinion guidance’ in China; it now “carries the stigma of immorality… commentators were only doing it for the money.” Furthermore, awareness of the ‘50 cent’ concept has damaged the reputation of China internationally, suspiciously pro-CPC comments by anonymous commentators are now often met with derision on Western news sites. As Zhang Shengjun, a politics professor complained in an article on the Global Times; the 50 Cent tag “has become a baton waved towards all Chinese patriots”. These are the eventual and obvious consequences of being duplicitous, no one will trust you.

Meanwhile the Chinese people have to live with the worry that their government are distorting and manipulating the news even in the commentary sections of their favourite websites.

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