What you need to know
Take a moment to understand the '50 Cent Party,' the 'Little Pinks,' and China's influence merchants.
China’s gradual dominance over global affairs has resulted in the economic and cultural gaps between Asia and the West starting to shrink over time. The Chinese Communist Party’s desire for total control has thus become far more attainable than it was during the Great Leap Forward. Economic policy reform and capital restructuring are at the heart of what turned the country around from what would have been a bleak future.
Chinese control, however, extends beyond the bank and into a plethora of resources, such as the accessibility of advanced technology, its 1.38 billion citizens and various online platforms, both domestically and abroad, which have become the domain of influence peddlers such as the “50 Cent Party” and “Little Pinks.”
Historically speaking, China’s ubiquitous nature was mostly thought of to only be in manufacturing, infrastructure, trade and financial investments. Six years ago, the vision and scope of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was unveiled by Xi Jinping, the President of China. Also known as One Belt, One Road, the overall plan is designed to create a network of trading between Europe, Asia and Africa with China acting as the nucleus. In support of the strategy, Asia and Oceania countries agreed to eventually supply a total of US$100 billion to the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) with China remaining the largest stakeholder in the deal, holding a 30 percent stake in the AIIB and 26 percent of voting rights.
In the automobile industry, U.S. automaker giant Tesla accepted funding last year from China in order to expand their business model (which is still yet to turn a profit). The incentives and rewards were higher than the concerns of its citizens, it seems, as transmit position information and other data have been linked to government-backed monitoring centers. This also applies to other car manufacturers such as Volkswagen, BMW, Ford, Nissan and Mitsubishi.
Similarly, Chinese technology giant Huawei on Sunday unveiled what it touts as the world’s fastest folding-screen smartphone, a successful and exciting breakthrough to showcase the latest in smartphone design. But it comes with a caveat: The Chinese government will likely be spying on you through your new device. Huawei has been appearing in news cycles recently due to pushback from countries like the United States and Australia who have adamantly rejected Huawei’s proposal to build 5G networks in their respective homelands out of warranted fear of a cyberattack.
Online, users on Reddit raised concerns over Chinese internet giant Tencent’s recent US$150 million investment into the popular online platform because of China’s notorious censorship reputation. This is a reasonable outcry, considering one of the attracting aspects of the popular news aggregator website is its open discussion forums that accompany news pegs. While free speech is encouraged by thread moderators, hate, bigotry and racist remarks are immediately blocked and/or removed. Not falling into any of those parameters, users have started seeing posts being removed, such as a link to an article detailing the supposed death of Abdurehim Heyit, a Uyghur musician from Xinjiang, an autonomous region in China’s far west that has a well-documented history of conflict between Han Chinese and ethnic Uyghurs.
This has raised questions of the nature of Chinese involvement on Reddit – echoes of larger questions of Chinese online influence which have long captured the attention governments, researchers and the general public.
The truth behind the ‘50 Cent Party’
Historically, censorship and moderation are generally thought of to be orchestrated by wumao, or the “50 Cent Party” – the colloquial name given to Chinese government-directed internet commentators who target online platforms to sway public opinion to favor their government. Any comment that resembles pro-China sentiment or regurgitated propaganda speech is intuitively linked back, even by scholars and journalists, to wumao. Unfortunately, there is no way to ever completely back it up with hard evidence.
In a Harvard University research article titled “How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, not Engaged Argument,” Quantitative Social Scientist Professor Gary King and his colleagues drew a similar conclusion. They were, however, able to analyze leaked emails (exposed by an anonymous blogger) from the Internet Propaganda Office in Zhanggong, a district of Ganzhou City in Jiangxi with a rich revolutionary history. Over a period of just under two years, 43,757 social media posts were decoded and cross-referenced with just less than one percent of the posts linking back to an unidentifiable person or group. The rest were confirmed to be specific, individual humans fulfilling their job requirements as government employees, otherwise known as the 50 Cent Army (which, by the way, got its name from the meager payment they supposedly receive per post, although Dr. King and his colleagues have stated this as being nothing more than a rumor).
Interestingly, the high-level coordinated comments, featured on both government and commercial websites, never contained argumentative praise or criticism or taunting of foreign countries, nor were they ever featured in controversial discussions and debates with skeptics. In an attempt to mirror the natural progress of a discussion, the comments were never random and tended to focus on cheerleading the regime and, in some cases, reporting facts.
However, the innocuity ends there. The social media posts usually followed up events with “collective action potential,” or during national holidays when people were not occupied with work. For example, in 2013 and 2014, during Qingming (Tomb Sweeping Day), over 18,000 posts about heroic veterans and martyrs were posted. And in 2013, during the Shanshan riots in Xinjiang, over 1,100 posts were published in an attempt to distract citizens and sway conversations away from the terrorist attack. Dr. King’s research estimated that the government fabricates and posts around 448 million social media comments a year.
In April of last year, a scuffle broke out at a Balenciaga store in Paris and the Chinese tourist involved was reprimanded and escorted out by the security guards. There was an outpouring of anger from Chinese social media users, both in China and the United States, accusing the designer label of being racist and prompted a community-driven threat to boycott the brand. Brooklyn Beckham, son of famous football star David Beckham, also felt the passionate wrath of a furious patriot when he took photographs of Chinese tourists on a recent trip to Italy. Also, two years ago, Lady Gaga was the target of online vitriol and abuse by Chinese social media users when she had a well-publicized meeting with the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet.
Almost no systematic empirical evidence shows that 50 Cent Party commentators are engaged in activity otherwise indicated in the leaked email directive. Contrary to an aggressive approach, their modus operandi is focused on distracting the public and trying to change the subject. The research has actually provided a broader theoretical understanding of information control in authoritative regimes. This is almost a softer, more strategic supplement to what is already prevalent on online platforms today.
If there is ever an opportunity to pounce on an anti-China sentiment, it does not go unnoticed for long: There is inevitably an army, rising from China’s over 800 million internet users, ready to deliver a heavy-handed response, unassisted and independent. They are always ready to defend their country, no matter what the cost may be.
Rise of the ‘Little Pinks’
The introduction of well-educated, internet-savvy young patriots who have cutely dubbed themselves “Little Pink,” or Xiaofenhong, have now penetrated mainstream conversations both domestically and abroad, so much so that they have become a new face of Chinese nationalism. A Peking University analytics tool reported that 83 percent of these keyboard warriors on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo identify as female, with the majority between the ages of 18 and 24, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Instagram, where the Balenciaga and Brooklyn Beckham ambush occurred, is banned in China, but international students abroad use the English-speaking platform and have publicly identified themselves as Little Pinks through online forums. This is no surprise, considering there are about 340,000 Chinese university students studying abroad in the United States and nearly 200,000 in Australia.
An army of students defending the Chinese government might sound historically familiar because it is. The Cultural Revolution employed a number of young, impressionable soldiers, the Red Guards, to carry out their attacks, specifically middle and high school aged children. Under the government’s direction, they ruined the “Four Olds,” meaning Old Customs, Old Habits, Old Culture and Old Ideas. They ruined historical artifacts, museums and cemeteries and regularly beat people to death, among other atrocious acts. These were all endorsed by Mao and their efforts were praised at Tiananmen Square.
Similarly, the Communist Party via state-run newspapers People’s Daily and Global Times has publicly praised the Little Pink members, according to the South China Morning Post, and encouraged the continuation of their verbal abuse and intimidation tactics.
Nothing so far has suggested that China’s investments overseas have controlled its citizens in the same way it has done to their own. But they are indicative of a wider expansion of a global reach that is bound to impact people around the world one way or another.
Federal regulations and government restrictions make it hard for China to penetrate international networks and carry out the similar method to the seemingly effective 50 Cent Party, but more chillingly, years and years of fed propaganda have brainwashed their citizens into believing a certain narrative and convincing themselves it’s their duty to protect their country’s reputation.
On Weibo, many young nationalists such as the Little Pinks have expressed die-hard support of the regime. At a closer look, however, they are also retaliating against overt control. Their family’s homes have been ransacked, perhaps, or their favorite video game has been blocked or censored.
Nationalism and outcry over video game censorship have potential to not be mutually exclusive. In November of last year, Valve Corporation announced that the popular PC gaming platform Steam would be coming to China. Chinese gamers expressed anger over the move, not due to a lack of enthusiasm for the platform itself, but over the anticipation of knowing certain aspects of the games they would come to love (as avid gamers) would inevitably be placed under restrictions by the state.
Recently, the newly released Taiwanese game "Devotion," made available worldwide via Steam, aggravated the situation further by including hidden messages (or ‘easter eggs’) referencing some of the usual tropes about President Xi Jinping, including comparing the Chinese leader to Winnie the Pooh. This angered Chinese gamers – possibly due to a nationalism-driven defense mechanism, or perhaps due to the more innocuous reason aforementioned: They simply fear the Chinese government, enraged by the mockery, could block the Steam service in China, ending access to "Devotion" and the rest of their beloved video games.
Like a Stockholm Syndrome sufferer, the feelings they have for their captors are multilayered, complicated and all too real, but pleasing them is apparently a rewarding priority. The blood is on the hands of the indoctrinated hostage and not the kidnapper who, for years, has been trying to convince the world that there are no prisoners locked in their basement.
Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
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