Universities expand ‘internet army’ to bolster party line
The existence of hired internet commentators has been known for some years, but the latest campaign represents a scaling up, an unprecedented top-down organisation of the volunteer army and a major focus on recruiting within universities.
Some four million students must be recruited on campuses by the end of this month according to targets set by the Communist Youth League or CYL.
A league notice released earlier this year said a new “internet civilisation” campaign would involve more than 10.5 million volunteers across the country including four million volunteers on the university “battlefront”.
“The university battlefront shall cover each and every university,” according to the CYL notice made public in February. It includes private institutions.
Millions of high school students will also be recruited in the propaganda drive. “The school battlefront must be fully developed as a major force, comprehensively mobilising young students to participate,” according to the CYL guidelines.
The 2015 notice follows on a CYL note in March 2014 to set up internet propaganda teams at universities, and establishing quotas for the numbers of team members for each university.
“In principle the number of internet propaganda team members at the undergraduate level or higher should not be less than 1.5% of the total student body, while the number of internet propaganda team members at professional schools, private colleges and independent institutes should not be less than 1% of the total student body,” according to a copy of the 2014 notice.
It added that provinces could choose to increase the quotas “in response to their individual circumstances”.
“The number of people mobilised by each university shall be no less than 20% of its CYL members and shall cover the CYL branches of every class,” according to advertisements posted at a number of universities in recent months calling for ‘Youth Internet Civilisation Volunteers’.
Run by the Communist Party, the CYL has some 88 million members aged 14 to 28, according to official figures.
Although frequently referred to as the ‘fifty-cent army’, because volunteers were reported to be paid 50 Chinese cents per word posted on the internet while posing as ordinary citizens, student recruits will not be paid.
The university teams will be part of a huge army of young people trawling and posting on the internet, mainly organised at the provincial and municipal level and by major official organisations.
However, universities will organise their own teams and report to the CYL central committee. Building the teams “at all levels of the CYL” should be completed by the end of June, according to the guidelines.
The provincial level targets set for university recruitment for the ‘internet army’ include 140,000 at universities in Beijing, 130,000 in Shanghai, 290,000 in eastern Jiangsu province and 260,000 in the southern province of Guangdong, which borders on Hong Kong.
Some 40,000 will be recruited at universities and colleges in restive Xinjiang province, home to the Uighur Muslim minority and a key area for government propaganda work.
According to official reports, Guangzhou’s prestigious Sun Yat-sen University alone has a quota target of 9,000 internet army recruits.
Even the Shenzhen campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong has a target of some 100 recruits. Another Hong Kong campus in China, United International College in Zhuhai set up by Hong Kong Baptist University, has a quota of 800 volunteers, according to reports from Hong Kong.
It is not possible to gauge how close universities are to reaching these targets by the end June deadline but United International College told Hong Kong media last month that they were unaware of any such activity. Others in Guangdong province indicated that a number of universities have fallen well short of the targets set for them.
Instructions for the internet army include posting “no less than three” positive comments by each recruit and helping the CYL to implement carefully planned campaigns to “to execute the party’s requirements and to act as the assistant and reserve force to the party”, according to the CYL guidelines.
Adam Segal, a China expert and director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, an American think-tank, said: “These targets seem crazy. Universities might be able to reach them by counting any three positive comments made by students online towards the institutions’ own targets.”
But propaganda victories are hard to ascertain. “We have some measures of the impact of China’s censorship and filtering, but what role the internet posters have played on attitudes, no one knows,” Segal told University World News.
Experts say that if the CYL is able to reach its ambitious recruitment targets within universities, it could further affect academic freedom and the willingness of academics to step outside the confines of party-prescribed ideological boundaries for fear of an internet mauling and public damage to their reputations.
According to Segal, this should be seen alongside the crackdown on ideological issues in universities as well as recently published regulations in China reining in the activities of non-government organisations, which could halt some university exchange activities.
“There has been an ideological shade thrown over the universities. Academics, if not worried, are self censoring; [they] are trying to figure out where the red lines are,” Segal said.
Previous notices had set the role of internet propaganda teams as “strengthening mainstream ideology and public opinion online”, in particular in online forums that are popular with young people.
But CYL emails leaked by a China-based ‘Unicorn Nocturne’ group, which said last month it had penetrated the CYL computer system exposing some 100 internal documents on the so-called ‘fifty-cent army’, showed for example that internet volunteers at Shanghai’s Donghua University had posted online reaction to news items considered sensitive in China.
These included the People’s Liberation Army naval escort fleet in Yemen in April, and diplomatic statements surrounding the deaths of Chinese citizens near the Myanmar border after bombings by the Myanmar air force in March.
A particular “emergency directive” was sent out in advance of the 4 June anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, the leaked emails revealed.
According to a student in Hubei province quoted by the BBC this month, at first the team mainly refuted negative rumours about the university, but then began to challenge political rumours.
Recent reports on the activities of the online army indicate that members are involved in identifying and recommending content for deletion, and other forms of misdirection which can involve deliberate attempts to muddy the facts of a particular incident, according to research by Freedom House, a non-profit organisation in the United States.
In some cases the volunteers have been mobilised to launch targeted internet bullying attacks on individuals that consist of insults and innuendo, in what some have likened to the activities of Mao Zedong’s Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution era of the 1960s and 1970s, who vilified and brutally attacked ‘class enemies’.
Public intellectuals and dissidents are believed to have been targeted in this way including Xia Yeliang, a former professor of economics at Peking University, sacked from his post in 2013.
The CYL central committee will conduct inspections of university teams around the country at “regular intervals”, the 2014 notice said, and teams would be rewarded for their work – including monetary rewards, according to leaked CYL emails from Unicorn Nocturne.