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.