I spend a lot of time reading about China on the Internet. It's my job, but even before it was my job it was a very serious hobby. I also like to look through readers' comments. Articles on China often hit a nerve with readers, Chinese and American (or otherwise) alike, and generate fierce debates, sometimes hundreds of comments even on a relatively brief article. But in the past few years these debates have been hijacked by the 五毛党(wu mao dang), or 50 Cent Party. They are the legion of young Chinese Internet users (some estimate there are 280,000 of them) who are paid 50 mao (roughly 7 cents) to post comments on blogs, news articles, bulletin boards, etc. that are pro-Communist Party, essentially to drown out critical voices. While they are most active on Chinese-language sites, the 50 Cent Party has found its way onto message boards, blogs and other forums in Western media, too, even spearheading the campaign against CNN's Jack Cafferty for calling the leadership in Beijing a bunch of "goons and thugs." David Bandurski wrote a great article in the Far Eastern Economic Review last year about this phenomenon.
I take issue with the 50 Cent Party for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it intimidates Chinese netizens into witholding their true opinions (not only do they drown out dissenting voices, the 50 Cent Party report back to their Communist Party bosses on exactly who is making the critical comments). But what is most frustrating for me personally is the way the 50 Cent Party has made genuine debate online about China virtually impossible. First of all, the tactics of the 50 Cent Party are tried and true debate-killers -- "You can't talk, America had slavery" and the like -- trying to shift the focus of the debate away from the issue at hand and questioning anyone's right to even discuss China outside of China. What's worse, I find myself assuming that any pro-government comment is paid for by the Communist Party, thus dismissing what could in fact be genuine comments that deserve a closer look. The world -- and China -- would benefit from honest, rigorous debate about Chinese government policy and its impact beyond its borders. But the 50 Cent Party is rendering this impossible. (Read more)
And, if I haven't depressed you enough, this quote from the aforementioned Bandurski article makes the prospect of genuine debate online even more grim:
"In 2004, an article on a major Chinese Web portal alleged that the United States Central Intelligence Agency and the Japanese government had infiltrated Chinese chat rooms with “Web spies” whose chief purpose was to post anti-China content. The allegations were never substantiated, but they are now a permanent fixture of China’s Internet culture, where Web spies, or wangte, are imagined to be facing off against the Fifty Cent Party."
None of this is to say I will stop reading the online commentary. In fact, despite the 50 Cent Party, despite the Great Firewall, I still see the Internet as an exciting force in Chinese society. I just wish the legions of paid pro-Communist Party commentators would quit crashing the party so the rest of us could have a more serious, productive debate.