By David Bandurski — After last month’s China Internet Research Conference, held at the University of Hong Kong, a number of journalists sitting on the sidelines noted that there had been insufficient discussion of the growing role played by China’s Web commentators, or wangluo pinglunyuan (网络评论员), which Chinese Web users have playfully nicknamed the “Fifty Cent Party” (五毛党).
So I set out to learn as much as I could about these “commentators” and their role in China’s Internet censorship system. Readers can see my findings in the latest issue of Far Eastern Economic Review. It’s subscriber only, unfortunately.
But here’s a teaser:

They have been called the “Fifty Cent Party,” the “red vests” and the “red vanguard.” But China’s growing armies of Web commentators – instigated, trained and financed by party organizations – have just one mission: to safeguard the interests of the Communist Party by infiltrating and policing a rapidly growing Chinese Internet. They set out to neutralize undesirable public opinion by pushing pro-Party views through chat rooms and Web forums. They report dangerous content to authorities.
By some estimates, these commentary teams now comprise as many as 280,000 members nationwide, and they show just how serious China’s leaders are about the political challenges posed by the Web. More importantly, they offer tangible clues about China’s next generation of information controls – what President Hu Jintao last month called “a new pattern of public opinion guidance.”

Former Freezing Point editor Li Datong mentions the “Internet commentators” in this recent OpenDemocracy post, which also includes a link to this early Times of India article alluding to the groups.
Last May, Berkeley’s China Digital Times offered this helpful translation of blogger’s comments on the “Fifty Cent Party.”
Readers might also see my piece last year on China’s use of teams of Internet censors under the auspices of “professional associations” with international corporate membership. The “volunteers” at groups like BAOM are also essentially “Web commentators” or (colloquially) “Fifty Cent Party.”
[Posted July 7, 2008, 3:15pm HK]

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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