While China’s Communist Party has more than 87 million members, it turns out that the most productive party in China may just be the infamous “50 Cent Party” (五毛党, wǔmáodǎng).
“50-centers” or wumao are popularly imagined to be feckless netizens who earn 0.5 kuai per pro-China post that they make online at the behest of government censors. If this were true, then they have likely amassed quite a fortune by this time, with the CCP giving them 244 million yuan yearly by our count.
That’s based on a recent study led by Gary King, a political scientist at Harvard University, which found that the Chinese government fabricates about 488 million social media comments a year. Half on government sites, and the other half on Chinese social media, where one of every 178 posts is authored at the behest of the government (seems a little low).
Utilizing leaked documents from an internet propaganda county office in Jiangxi, this first-ever systematic study of China’s “50 Cent Party,” found out that apart from their obvious productivity, pretty much everything we thought we knew about the wumao is wrong.
“The content of [50-center] posts was completely different than what had been assumed by academics, journalists, activists, and participants in social media,” Jennifer Pan, an assistant professor at Stanford and one of the report’s authors, told Foreign Policy. “They — and we before we did this study — turned out to be utterly wrong”
It turns out that despite popular belief, 50-centers aren’t out to engage in never-ending debates with critics of the ruling Party. Instead, they are primarily deployed in mass when news about a politically sensitive event breaks in order to create a smokescreen of positive, and often unrelated praise, in order to distract from the issue at hand, a method of controlling the conversation that the Chinese government prefers over all-out censorship.
For example, researchers said that following a 2013 riot in Xinjiang, there was a sudden spike of posts about local economic development and Xi Jinping’s “China Dream,” as China’s 50-centers worked to distract from the controversial issue at hand.
“In retrospect, this makes a lot of sense — stopping an argument is best done by distraction and changing the subject rather than more argument — but this had previously been unknown,” King said in an e-mail to Bloomberg.
In what might come as even more of a shock. The researchers discovered that the vast majority of the posts were written not by freelancing shills, but by actual government employees.
And the final bombshell. It turns out that we really shouldn’t even be calling these people “50-centers” at all. Apparently these workers’ responsibilities at local courts, tax bureaus and government offices also include making pro-government posts on Weibo when called upon, and they don’t get an extra 50 cent for doing so.