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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Does the PRC news media lie?

Does the Chinese Media lie, or is their culture and worldview so diametrically opposed to Western norms that the recent “conflicts of narrative” between the two are more a case of cultural misunderstanding than Chinese moral malignance?

Reading through the recent content of the Chinese news media, any fluent and engaged reader can see the many recent instances where the PRC media has obviously distorted its’ information, downplayed an event, been duplicitous in its argument and perhaps even lied openly. At least when it comes to the English news content of the PRC media’s, spotting these aberrations of reality and the objectives behind them are relatively simple; whether the Chinese journalists flip flop on an issue, boldly oversimplify a complicated situation or deliberately falsify modern and historical events, their claims are usually framed within a self-serving PRC narrative.

As a nation that relies upon patriarchal top-down political control and Confucian modes of ‘social harmony’ rather than openness and political inclusivity, examples of dissent, protest and arguing with the Party directly challenges the power system and are usually shut out of the public sphere. Recent cover-ups and journalistic manipulation of issues that cast poorly on the PRC, like the high speed rail crash that killed dozens last month, the handling of the Sichuan earthquake and the Sanlu milk formula poisoning cases of 2008 illustrate this. All three examples were marked by underwriting, the purposeful withholding of potentially damaging information and blatant scapegoating by journalists unwilling to go against the Party. Meanwhile editorial pieces from Xinhua, People’s Daily and the Daily Times,  all PRC run publications, openly and regularly state historical mistruths as if they were irrefutable, evidence of which is so abundant that providing direct examples would be trifling.

When it comes to issues that cast poorly on the PRC, the Chinese media can be expected to fall in line behind the Party and to spin or ignore the story so as to cause the least amount of damage. Not only does the PRC maintain its own print, radio and television medias’ in order to affect this however, it also reserves itself editorial rights over any and all publications in China. Likewise, through the “Great Fire Wall of China” and the PRC’s internet censors it also edits online news and blogs; in effect, the Chinese news media is the PRC.

Because all mainland news outlets are either directly controlled and run, or stringently moderated by the Party it is impossible to tell if the various “untruths” in the Chinese media are solely the result of PRC directives and intervention or if they are also because of the intricacies of Chinese, Confucian based culture. Confucianism, now a reformed and accepted part of Chinese life since the end of the Cultural Revolution does, at least theoretically, make provision for journalists, unmolested by the Party, to feel obliged to protect it, even if they weren’t Party members (though it is unlikely that there are many non-Party affiliated journalists and editors in China). This Confucian concept of “Filial Piety”; child-like subservience to your superiors, is still a strong and certainly goes some way to restrict the acceptability of speaking out against the Party in modern China. This ingrained subservience, along with the practice of “Guanxi (good ol’ boys) networking” also ensures that people in power, support one another, maintain their control and respectability and that no one important “loses face”, another important facet of Chinese culture.

The very nature of the PRC and the culture that it exists in means that publicly accepting failures and mistakes is difficult; when you control everything with an iron fist the way the PRC does: from education all the way through to economics and even entertainment, then any and all problems within society become your fault. The people of China do not have the opportunity to vote out regimes that make mistakes like those in the West do. Thus, the only way for the Party to maintain popular support  is to make sure the news is always ‘good news’ or at least to ensure that scapegoats are ready to take the blame. As such the Party is compelled to act immorally and to deceive its’ people rather than face their condemnation, which in the worse case could result in mass protests, revolution, the ousting of Party heads or force Party reform.

As an organ of the PRC does the PRC media lie?

All we know for sure  is that, as an organ of the PRC, it is definitely in its interests to do so.

CPC Anniversary Continued.

A series of articles from People’s Daily  in the lead up to the 90th anniversary also spoke of CPC internal policies and their positive effect on the people of China. A rambling People’s Daily peace on June 8th speaks of the Party’s beliefs regarding religion and the religious rights of its people as well as the state of religious harmony in the country. While two similar People’s Daily articles from June 17th and 22nd lauded the positive achievements in the Party’s history; particularly increases in living standards and the nation’s economic rise. The June 8th article begins by making it plain that religious acceptance in China is high as long as belief does not supplant or challenge the Party, wherein the article even praises religion’s ability to contribute to an inclusive Chinese society. The same article, in providing China as an example to the world on religious tolerance does not comment on recent violent conflicts in Tibetan Budhist and Uyghur Muslim minority areas however. Neither does it elaborate on the meaning behind the contentious issues of CPC state interference in religious ceremonies and on the policy of the party choosing religious leaders.

The CPC’s newly appointed “Bishop Guo”

Central to the praise for China in the July 17th and 22nd articles was the argument that the Party has been primarily committed to protecting the Chinese people’s interests though “wise development strategies”, the “liberation” of its people and the “democratic” nature of the Chinese revolution. Statements which in themselves seem ill- fitting to the perception of China in the West, wherein observers generally see China as patently un-democratic, repressive and founded on the mistakes of the “Great Leap forward” and other CPC disasters.

While economically, China’s recent powers may be without doubt, it is on social issues where the Party seems most frantic to prove itself. Though it’s one dimensional attitude of repression, surveillance, blatant cover-ups and distortions of the truth, the CPC shows this desperation even clearer. When the CPC grafts freedom, liberation and tolerance to its own history at the same time as it blocks these words from Chinese search engine results, harasses journalists, represses minorities and lies about its past it shows its immaturity and its many insecurities.

Given the chance to spin its own stories on its anniversary the CPC has failed to make the positive impression it wished to in the overseas press. Many foreign newspapers, when if at all they covered the anniversary, touched on issues of corruption, minority rights, environmental issues and even on the blatant propaganda push the anniversary has spurred. If the CPC wants real respect from credible international players, not just 3rd world nations; (Kenya, Botswana, Bulgaria, Mongolia and Nepal being notable nations touted as congratulating the party on its anniversary) it needs to understand that its recent economic success has only increased its responsibilities and that the argument that “China is still a developing country” no longer provides a free-pass. China will not receive the respect it desires until it takes meaningful, sincere action toward the Western demands it so publicly detests.

CPC Anniversary Press reports

The upcoming 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, both as a celebratory and a quasi-political milestone in the People’s Republic is a huge event on the mainland. In the lead up to July 1st anniversary the state has marked the occasion politically by reframing the party’s past and by refocusing their objectives for the future. To this end, a slew of recent Xinhua and People’s Daily articles have delved into the political ideology of the party on issues as diverse as minority rights, international relations and China’s ‘Peaceful Rise’, the ‘right to rule’, personal freedoms and even Chinese democracy. As an opportunity to take back the initiative from critical Western opinion leaders and change the direction of political discourse, this year’s anniversary looks tailor-made for the CCP propaganda machine. To this end the CCP’s media has stressed the excitement in China amid the celebrations and the positives of the Party’s past and present. For example, significant amounts of ink has been spent in recent weeks highlighting the huge CPC flower arrangements and other decorations at Tiananmen square, the preparations for celebratory opera and dance performances and the premier of a megabudget revolution- era propaganda film. July 1st is an opportunity to paint China in bright and positive colours.

On a more serious note the celebration and pomp of the anniversary in China is mentioned only under the backdrop of the continual mention of the legitimacy and power of the Party, as such the real objective of the mass media coverage seems to be more calculated. The People’s Daily publication, on the June 17th, titled: “Communist Party committed to protecting the people’s interests” leads its coverage of the anniversary with a simple albeit blunt, argument; ‘the CCP is the only political option for the Chinese people’ and throughout its history, has always been so. The piece begins by explaining the core of the CPC’s ideology as distinct and unique; Maoism and hybridised Chinese Socialism, and that this “core” created the Chinese victories against “Feudalism, Imperialism and Bureaucratic Capitalism”. The piece goes onto argue that the Party’s achievements in realising its goals of “national independence”, strength, wholesale prosperity and the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” give it an unequivocal ‘right’ to lead.

A second article by People’s Daily June 23rd, titled: “Three ‘nots’ characterize China’s peaceful rise” looks at the CCP’s history and its relations with the outside world, citing “China’s peaceful rise”, the article attempts to solidify the Party’s power by expanding on the nation’s place as a positive actor under Maoist government. An old creed; “Peaceful Rise”, refers to the way that China overtook more developed nations to become the second largest economy in the world, without directing challenging those nations. This article goes much further than this definition however. It claims that the “Peaceful rise” encapsulated a time in history devoid of aggressive Chinese behaviour; “no civil wars, aggression against other countries, refugee waves and occupation of overseas colonies”. This claim is of course blatantly false, large-scale conflicts with Vietnam, India, the USSR and more famously Korea as well as examples of violent internal conflict in various border regions of China all argue for the aggressiveness of the CCP. Yet the article fairly concludes that unlike the former USSR, China “does not attempt to build its own military bloc and expand its influence. In People’s Daily’s words; “China takes part, helps build and contributes to the system and meanwhile benefits from it”, it is “not in conflict with the existing international system”. The article conclude by citing Chinese membership of a range of international institutions and the signing of a large number of international treaties as further evidence and demands for more understanding and patience from Western critics.

A People’s Daily editorial piece written by Wu Jianming on June 17th went further in arguing for the validity and benevolence of the Party’s international presence in supporting the oppressed by quoting Mao Zedong; “China has friends all over the world”. In this case, the article cites Chinese resistance against the old (patently Western) evils of imperialism and colonialism; that “The Chinese revolution was part of the great resistance wave”. Jianming elaborates that “China supported revolutions in other countries, and other countries in turn supported China’s revolution”: the reason why “China has friends all over the world”. Taking a look at modern examples of CPC foreign relations makes these comments about “justice” and “liberation” hard to reconcile with reality though. In modern times, strong Chinese support of repressive regimes in Asia, Africa and the Middle East (North Korea, Iran, Burma, Libya and Sudan to name five) does not speak of a benevolent foreign policy. In the diminishing light of the old evils of the world the CPC seems unwilling to recognise the newer evils of dictatorship and totalitarianism, something made even more insulting to justice and liberty by China’s blunt distortions.

It is poignant that a period which should be about celebration for the CCP is instead more about attempting, 90 years later, to prove the Party’s legitimacy, fudge its history and to shirk its responsibilities. On June 23rd People’s Daily took the time to attack the West by complaining that demands for balanced trade, fair economic access, currency re-evaluations, environmental protection and human rights progress would be hard for even developed countries to meet. Currently however, China looks unlikely to take action on any of these requirements let alone all of them, the implication seems to be that Beijing thinks it can gain Western praise and acceptance through its economic prowess alone.

CPC Media highlights ideological struggles with the West

In the last couple of months the Chinese media has noticeably ramped up their coverage of Chinese outreach programmes and a pattern of CPC support of non-democratic and designated “rogue” states has arisen. Recent news reports ranging from Chinese support of the governments of Iran and Sudan to articles on exponential trade growth between China and countries under Western sanctions subtly signals Chinese willingness to counterbalance Western political goals. This development, when coupled with China’s recent emphasis on ‘peaceful solutions’ in the Middle East and the media’s stern attacks on NATO indicates a new CPC missive to the world: China is now the number 1 ideological foil to challenge the West.

CPC support of foreign nations is founded on the country’s desire to advance its own strategic interests, particularly regarding trade and in securing natural resources. But the PRC media’s recent emphasis on Chinese contact with countries that have longstanding conflicts with Western democracies is particularly telling. Both Fiji, Sudan, Gaddaffi’s Libya, Sri Lanka and Iran have been feted in the last 3 months and the nature of China’s relationship with the country lauded; often placing Beijing directly at odds with the West.

On the 18th of April and later on the 1st of June, two Xinhua news stories discussed economic relationships with Fiji and the results of a Chinese trade and investment delegation to the island dictatorship. The first article in April directly quotes Fiji’s military commander (misquoted as “Prime Minister”) as naming China “a true friend of Fiji” and that ‘new Chinese infrastructure projects’ allow Fijian communities to “rid themselves of the old ways of thinking”. Meanwhile correlatory trade and investment figures quoted in June from Xinhua cited an almost 400% increase in Chinese investment from 2009 to 2010, during the same period that Australia and New Zealand increased diplomatic and economic pressure on the country. A second People’s Daily article from June also stressed the strength of Chinese relationships, his time with  the fractured African nation of Sudan. Central to the article was a quote from the Sudanese Vice President thanking China for its position in the UN “over problems related to Sudan for a long time” as well as sources citing Chinese economic assistance and trade. The article also cited several government officials discussing Chinese support of the Sudanese government on the conflict in Darfur without specifically stating it; “China respected the choice of the Sudanese people”. Later in the month, marking the 40th anniversary of the establishment of relations between China and Iran, the Chinese President was quoted in Xinhua as pushing for further economic and political cooperation with Iran “to promote peace and stability”. The article also made reference to the countries common interests, “friendly relationship” and diplomatic exchanges and sought to cast Iran as an international player in the world despite the country’s ‘rogue state’ and ‘Axis of Evil’ monikers.

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