Written by Rongbin Han.
On October 15, 2014, President Xi Jinping met and lauded Zhou Xiaoping and Hua Qianfang at the high-profile “Forum on Literature and Art” in Beijing, and encouraged them to produce more works with “positive energy” (zheng nengliang 正能量). Compared to other renowned attendees such as Nobel Laureate Mo Yan, these two young bloggers were small potatoes.
Yet, they received no less attention, largely because of their controversial identities. Many criticized them as state-sponsored Internet commentators—popularly known as the “fifty-cent army” (wumao dang 五毛党)—or opportunists profiting from online nationalism. But the state portrayed them as representatives of grassroots patriotic voices and the new popular force in Chinese cyberspace, namely the “voluntary fifty-cent army” (zidai ganliang de wumao 自带干粮的五毛 or ziganwu 自干五 in short).
Today, the group has demonstrated its influences in multiple online events. A most recent case is the trolling expedition of Emperor Bar (Diba 帝吧) in which nationalistic Chinese netizens—many claim to be members of the “voluntary fifty-cent army”—circumvented the Great Firewall and flooded the Facebook page of the newly elected Taiwanese President, Tsai Ing-wen (For a song specially created for this event, click here ).
Evidently, the “voluntary fifty-cent army” appeared to be pro-regime and the praise from President Xi has signaled the state’s attempt to co-opt them. Yet, the rise of the group was first and foremost a spontaneous movement, largely as a reaction to pervasive criticism towards the authoritarian regime. In effect, netizens’ identification with the group is both externally imposed and actively chosen. The identity is externally imposed in that many pro-regime netizens are simply labelled as the “fifty-cent army” (bei wumao 被五毛) by their opponents to delegitimize their voices. The identity is actively chosen in that members of the “voluntary fifty-cent army” (hereafter “voluntary fifty-centers”) have turned the pejorative label into a badge of honour and superiority: they believe they are demeaned only because they are more patriotic and rational than their opponents.
Patriotism and rationality are the two key terms to understand the identity of the “voluntary fifty-cent army.” “Voluntary fifty-centers” often evince nationalistic opinions and are sceptical towards the west. As a result, they tend to see the regime as playing a critical historical role in unifying and industrializing China, thus are more likely to support the regime. But “voluntary fifty-centers” are more than cyber nationalists because they emphasize evidence and logic over ideological or nationalistic claims—to them, the former is about one’s intelligence (zhishang 智商) and the latter is about one’s standpoint (lichang 立场). The standpoint may be crucial, but it must be backed with intelligence, otherwise one will only become a laughingstock (See Figure 1). The post goes,
Because CCP is not doing well enough now, you decide to fan a political group that is a hundred times worse than it. I really do not know what to do. But I am more optimistic about the future of the Republic [PRC], knowing that our enemies have such incompetent allies.
Figure 1: Standpoint vs. Intelligence
Note: “Opposing the Communist Party is an issue of standpoint. Being a Kuomintang fan implies questionable intelligence,” from https://www.cchere.com/article/3916228.
“Voluntary fifty-centers” repeatedly interact with each other and their opponents using several distinctive interactive tactics that share a playful quality, a nationalistic orientation, and an emphasis on “rationality. Such tactics help consolidate the group identity and sustain a pro-regime discourse online. For instance, “voluntary fifty-centers” have engaged in labelling wars and deployed derogatory labels such as “U.S.-cents party” (meifen dang 美分党), “dog-food party” (gouliang dang 狗粮党), and “road-leading party” (dailu dang 带路党) to describe their opponents, implying their alignment with hostile foreign forces. “Voluntary fifty-centers” have also denigrated pro-liberal intellectuals, media professionals, and internet celebrities as “elites” (jingying 精英) and “public intellectuals” (gongzhi 公知), accusing them for being ignorant or attempting to manipulate public opinion.
“Voluntary fifty-centers” may directly confront their opponents by picking their logical and factual errors or stance discrepancies. Such attacks are often termed as “face slapping” (dalian 打脸), which is apparently more antagonistic than labelling wars. In contrast, cross-talk (xiangsheng 相声), which involves a collective ridicule of opponents, is a much less confrontational tactic. In cross-talk, “voluntary fifty-centers” use exaggeration, irony and parody to highlight the “illogical” arguments of their opponents. For example, when they hail slogans like “Heaven Condemns the Chinese Communist Party” (tianmie zhonggong 天灭中共), they are not denouncing the Party, but ridiculing the dissidents for their tendency to attribute all disasters to the regime and their inability to challenge the regime in any effective ways other than cursing.
Fishing (diaoyu 钓鱼) is one of the most popular tactics among “voluntary fifty-centers.” It refers to the practice of “hooking” opponents with false or fabricated information. There are numerous such cases. For example, a Weibo user posted an entry online about an incident in Texas where a woman was shot to death by a policeman. The entry left out the location intentionally to mislead those who would “habitually criticize” China. Indeed, the bait caught quite a few pro-liberal Weibo celebrities, including lawyer Yuan Yulai and rock musician Zuoxiao Zuzhou. Another influential fishing case is the story of Zhang Shimai, an imaginary environmental scientist. The story fabricated a theory in the name of the non-existent Professor Zhang that high speed trains will cause massive geological disasters. The theory was then widely reproduced online and hooked many unsuspecting readers, including some journalists who even quoted Zhang.
Figure 2: Fishing Weibo Entry
Other tactics of “voluntary fifty-centers” include “on-looking” (weiguan 围观)—surrounding an opponent in large crowds to show his unpopularity or absurdity, “playing undercover” (wujiandao 无间道)—hiding the true identity and supporting opponents in exaggerated ways to alienate the audience, “keeping accounts” (jizhang 记账)—recording opponents’ behaviour as evidence for future attacks, and directly mobilizing shared beliefs, values and emotions. Evidently, not all these tactics are exclusively deployed by “voluntary fifty-centers,” though “face-slapping”, “fishing” and “keeping accounts” are more specific to the group. Yet, all such tactics help define the group’s identity and contributed to the proliferation of a spontaneous pro-regime discourse.
The rise of the “voluntary fifty-cent army” manifests the pluralization of online discourse in China. Though they may represent only a small portion of all netizens, “voluntary fifty-centers” have firmly established their presence online. Evidently, their activities have added to the resilience of the Chinese authoritarian regime, maybe more effectively than the state itself, due to their relatively neutral stance, their emphasis on facts and “rationality”, and their playful strategies.
That being said, “voluntary fifty-centers” are not unthinking tools of the state. What truly defines the group is their shared distaste of the behaviour of some regime critics. This is why many of them are dissatisfied with the state’s co-optation and abuse by extreme nationalistic citizens.
Rongbin Han is an Assistant Professor in the Department of International Affairs, University of Georgia. He is the author of “Defending the Authoritarian Regime Online: The ‘Voluntary Fifty Cents Army’” in China Quarterly. Image Credit: CC by Lou Gold/Flickr.