China’s leadership will turn the Internet to its own advantage
It was one of the last projects that Ai Weiwei was able to launch before his arrest. The internationally renowned artist and activist intended to uncover one of the Chinese regime’s most notorious and the most obscure attempts to manipulate public opinion: the use of a host of commentators on the Internet who, while pretending to be ordinary citizens, actually acted as paid mouthpieces for the regime. ”This is an attempt from the Communist Party to falsify the voice of the people and give the impression that it enjoys a true public support,« Ai Weiwei said in an interview with Information.
The use of hired pro-regime Internet commentators seems to be massive. Politically however, it is a highly sensitive phenomenon due to the secrecy that surrounds all methods for controlling public opinion in China. There is extremely little information about who these people are, how they are organized and how they get their orders. Ai Weiwei fought the government’s Internet control for years and such were the questions he sought to answer. His project was abruptly put to a halt when on 3 April, he was arrested as part of Beijing’s massive hard line against government critics.
However, classified documents from the Communist Party on the regime’s propaganda strategy leaked to Information now confirm that paid internet commentators do indeed exist; that they are controlled by the party leadership; and that they aim to shape public discourse in the Communist party’s favor.
The documents state that local cells should work as the regime’s eyes on the Internet and ”as soon as possible notify the party committee and government on issues that are extremely sensitive and could have a major negative impact on social stability”. As a next step, they must, if so instructed by the party, ”as soon as possible destroy all negative focal points on the Internet,”. Subsequently, ”Internet commentators should get organised in order to lead the public opinion in the right direction”.
Beneficial for the regime
The Internet has been hailed as an instrument that could potentially give the Chinese people a greater opportunity to speak out critically against the regime, thereby eroding its power. As Ran Yunfei, a writer and blogger who has also been arrested during the current clamp-down by the Chinese authorities, told Information: ”The Internet is our main weapon, since all the other channels are completely controlled by the government.”
But as the use of commentators show, Beijing also strives to exploit cyberspace to its own benefit.
”The Chinese government is becoming increasingly skillful in exploiting the advantages offered by the Internet,” says Anne-Marie Brady, a researcher at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury, who specialises in Beijing's propaganda. ”Above all, it is and an excellent medium to propagate regime propaganda to a huge audience in much easier and much more effective way than through traditional channels.”
Amnesty International's Secretary General, Salil Shetty, warned in March that authoritarian countries like China are investing ”significant resources in pro-regime blogs” with the aim to consolidate state power.
With around half a billion users in China, the Internet has become the most important and freest forum for debate in the country. Consequently, the Chinese Leadership considers it necessary to harness it to its own advantage.
”The Internet’s rapid development raise new challenges in our public opinion work,” it is stated in a classified document from Beijing city’s political leadership. The population's opinions must be ”guided in order to ensure the stability of the party’s leadership”, while ”control of politically damaging information on the Internet is to be increased.”
Beijing has officially announced that the primary objective of the country’s Internet control measures is to eliminate ”false informations, obscene and vulgar material as well as gambling”. But a document from the Communist Party’s powerful Central Propaganda Bureau reveals that the ”greatest task” for regime censorship in fact is cracking down on ”politically dangerous information" . This applies especially to ”aggression against the party and its leaders and promoting alternative political systems as well as freedom of the press.”
All publishers, editors, printing houses and Internet service providers should be subjected to thorough investigations in order to trace politically sensitive content, it states. Even online shops must be combed in order to ensure that they do not sell illegal texts and images.
Rumors about the regime’s use of Internet commentators appeared for the first time for about six or seven years ago. Before long, they patronizingly became known as wumao-dong or ’the 50 Cent Army’ when it was reported that this was the amount they received for each pro-party contribution they posted.
It is difficult to ascertain how many commentators who are on the government payroll. But according to most experts, there are probably several thousands of them. The documents from the party leadership give no clues as to the numbers but they do however state that each local government from county level and up – and there are over 3,000 counties in China – is to create cells with its own commentators. In 2010, the Chinese newspaper Global Times reported that the Western province of Gansu alone was in the proces of hiring 650 full-time web commentators.
Fears of Jasmine
The commentators constitute af front line in regime defense against the spreading of anti-government movements on the Internet. Representatives from the People’s Liberation Army have nervously pointed to the Internet as a major influence on the anti-authoritarian revolts in North Africa and Middle East setting alarming examples for China. As a point in case, it was precisely the Jasmine revolutions in the Arab world that inspired February’s anonymous calls on the Internet to protest against the Chinese regime – a move that set alarm bells ringing in Beijing. Control of the Internet was tightened even further and a large number of dissidents and civil rights activists were arrested.
Among them was Ai Weiwei, who only last Wednesday was released after spending 81 days in jail. Apparentely, he has now been muzzled by the authorities. After his arrest, the pro-regime commentators on the internet fulfilled one of their main tasks: to attack those, who Beijing considers to be regime enemies. On the Internet, they have slandered Ai Weiwei’s image in an effort to reduce his support in the population. Last year’s winner of Nobel’s Peace Prize, the imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo, met with a similar fate.
Just a job
One of the people who perform this line of work may be a young man, educated as a journalist, whom Ai Weiwei came to interview prior to his arrest. Last month, a transcript of their conversation emerged on the Internet. In this, the commentator, who is only known by the letter 'W', reveals that every day, he receives instructions by e-mail from his superiors , instructing him about which topics to comment on and which ”ideological direction” to take in his posts in order to ”guide the public opinion correctly”.
It turns out that hedoes not perform this task out of ideological conviction; nor does he consider himself a supporter of the Communist Party. Rather, he regards it as a normal part-time job that enables him to make an ekstra 100 dollars per month. ”I needed a little extra income, so I tried this as an experiment and found out how easy it was,” W said.
Information’s reporter has presented the sources in this news story with summary and quotes from the content of the document files in question. Sources have not actually seen the files.