China's large and growing army of internet users — an estimated 250 million by last count, the world's largest by nationality — is posing unique challenges for the ruling Communist Party in its efforts to control the flow of information it considers undesirable.
Traditionally, China's paranoid rulers have relied on a rather heavy-handed exercise of web censorship to block out foreign news websites and content that, in their estimation, would corrupt impressionable Chinese minds with anything but the official version of events in Tibet, say, or the Tiananmen Square massacre.
The Great Firewall of China, as the internet censorship facility is dubbed, has been enabled by the inventive powers of some of the best Western technology firms; but while it served its purpose admirably in the past, there is a growing realisation, even among Chinese leaders, that the government's internet control mechanisms must get a lot more sophisticated, given the growing sophistication of technology and the maturing of the Chinese media consumer.
For instance, using a virtual private network (VPN) with a freely downloadable software, it’s possible for anyone in China to bypass the Net censorship mechanisms and stay out of orbit of the internet police who keep a trained eye out for “cyber counter-revolutionaries”. China has tolerated such trespasses as the “acceptable price” for opening up its economy to the world, an enterprise from which it has benefited immensely.
Increasingly, however, the attention of the Chinese authorities has moved away from overseeing a ‘reactive’ censorship regime to a proactive shaping and influencing of public opinion by harnessing the power of the internet. Last year, president Hu Jintao drew the contours of the new policy when he advised the state media to take the lead in “setting the agenda” and shaping public opinion. More specifically, he advised Communist Party leaders to “exercise supremacy over internet public opinion, master the technique of online ‘guidance’, and use new technology to amplify the effectiveness of ‘positive’ propaganda”. The manner in which the Communist Party has implemented this new Thought Control mechanism is striking.
In this endeavour, party leaders were inspired by a successful cyberpolicing model in Nanjing in eastern Jiangsu province in 2005, where Communist Party-sponsored university students acting as internet monitors and web commentators effectively ‘cleansed’ the university's electronic bulletin-board of anti-party articulations and advanced the party line. Contemporaneous online chatter claimed that the party had paid these students 5 mao (or 50 Chinese cents, the equivalent of Rs3.5) for every pro-party post. Although that claim was never substantiated, the taint stuck: to this day, anyone who posts a blatantly propagandist pro-Communist Party message online is dismissed by increasingly cynical Chinese netizens as belonging to the Wu Mao Dang (50 Cents Party).
Today, members of the 50 Cents Party are an acknowledged cyberpolice force: they serve as the eyes and ears of the Communist Party, act as its attack dog against “unacceptable” online content on politically sensitive issues, and steer bulletin board and blog debates with posts that reflect the opinions of the Communist Party. It’s been reported that 50 Cents Party members are even required to undergo training by the culture ministry and secure certification after taking an exam.
It’s speculated that the 50-cent army of ‘opinion makers’ even operate on foreign-language websites, criticising Western notions of what's wrong with China and parleying the establishment Chinese view. But their effect is most visibly felt on domestic Chinese-language websites, current affairs forums, bulletin board services, and chatrooms.
In a few recent instances where they were active, it was noticed that their response time was remarkably short. When riots broke out in Weng’an in Guizhou province in June 2008 following suspicions that a party official’s son was to blame for the death of a girl, the Chinese internet was momentarily aflame with incendiary posts critical of party officials. But the censors quickly stepped in, deleting posts within 15 seconds of their being posted online.
But China's cyberpolice are being kept on their toes by an extremely nimble generation of internet users who are resorting to inventive ways to weave circles around Big Brother 2.0 who watches over them. For instance, during the Weng’an riots, a few Chinese bloggers managed to bypass the censor mechanism (which runs on a keyword search function) by using a software program that converted Chinese text from the modern left-to-right format to the traditional top-to-bottom, right-to-left format. In other instances, Chinese netizens use satire as a tool to mock and evade the internet police.
For all the greater signs of gradual openness that characterise China's internet, there is also an epic ‘information war’ for shaping public opinion. On the one side is a paranoid Communist Party that invokes modern technology — and a 50 cnts amy — to aid a Big Brother-like thought control program; on the other is a maturing Chinese media consumer who is fighting back with sheer inventiveness.