50-cent Propagandists?

We’ve known it was going to happen for a long time, but it’s still a big deal that China now has more Internet users than the United States. English speakers should remember that most of the world doesn’t speak English, and that most of the Internet won’t be in English, either.

One effect the Internet has had is that individual Chinese voices are having the chance to be heard. Surprising to many, who expected that those voices would be dissident voices critical of the Chinese government, it turns out that the majority of the voices are very supportive of the government and intensely patriotic.

Of course, maybe some dissident voices are just afraid to speak up. Certainly, dissident opinions are not given the chance to develop in the mainstream press and are often censored online to keep them from spreading, but my experience offline anecdotally confirms that the vast majority of Chinese support the government and are intensely patriotic.

We heard these Chinese voices in the condemnation of the Western media’s coverage of the protests/riots in Tibet, and we heard them in the protests and response to the foreign protests of the Olympic Torch Relay.

One of the most talked about and interesting forums to come out of the response to coverage of events in Tibet was the anti-CNN.com site, which has active forums in Chinese and English. I was first introduced to this site by Michael Dundas, who I think actually met the guy who set up the site. Mike had planned to do an interview with him but I’m not sure if he ever did. (By the way, Mike has some interesting interviews with Chinese living abroad posted on his website, and a great blog in Chinese.)

The anti-CNN forums and links are certainly worth a look. Unfortunately, often the voices simply come across as angry and unreasonable.

Actually, such voices have been around for quite a while, and they often show up in the comments of articles that mention China, particularly articles that can be construed to be critical of China. For instance, here is a comment I got in an entry on my Chinese blog:

我发现自己对西方越了解越讨厌你们西方人!看看这几年你们西方媒体和民众对中国的妖魔化报道和你们对中国的无知!好象只允许你们发达就不允许我们中国发达了!是不是以后非洲发达了,还会把非洲妖魔化!有个评论员说得好,你们西方人只要有钱连笨蛋都能当国家总统!鄙视你们!你们西方有哪个国家不是靠侵越别的国家发展起来的,你们看看中国什么时候欺负别的国家了!就拿你们美国来说,侵略伊拉克觉得挺好玩的是吧??你们西方人那么好战,是不是非得有人来修理你们才服气!有本事来和中国打仗啊!近代战争哪次不是以你们失败结束!觉得中国人善良就那么好欺负?????? [angry smiley]


I find that I detest you Westerners more and more! Look at your Western media and people’s reports demonizing China over the past few years and your ignorance about China! It’s as if only you are allowed to be developed and our China isn’t allowed to be developed! Once Africa is developed will you demonize Africa too!* There was a commentator that said it right: as long as you Westerners have money even an idiot can be president of the country! I despise you! Which country of you Westerners didn’t depend infringing on other countries to develop, and when has China ever bullied another country! Just take your USA as an example, you think invading Iraq is fun, right?? You Americans love war so much, is it going to take somebody taking care of you to make you get the point!!** If you think you’re so hot come and fight China! In recent times which war hasn’t ended in defeat for you! Do you think Chinese people are so kind, so easily bullied?????? [angry smiley]

Notes: *I’ve left the original punctuation, and not added question marks for the rhetorical questions. **Not sure how translate this one. It basically means “is it going to take someone beating the crap out of you before you finally give up?”, but not quite.

What had I done to deserve such a rebuke, you might ask? I had linked to these pictures (from the absolutely fabulous Big Picture blog on Boston.com) documenting Beijing’s preparations for the Olympics.

Here is the (I thought fairly innocuous) text of my offending blog entry:





Welcoming the Olympics

Welcoming the Olympics is no easy task. Actually, it’s quite complicated.

Sometimes it’s hard to describe with words, and easier to get a feel for through pictures.

Of course, not all of the comments I get are like this. The next two comments I got on that entry were from someone asking if it was okay to speak English with a slightly nasal voice, and from someone else asking whether the word “happy” should be pronounced “hai-pi” or “hai-pei”. Not sure how to answer that last one.

Thomas Crampton accepts Oiwan Lam‘s claim that these online commenters are “50-cent Propagandists“, paid fifty Chinese cents (about .05 Euros) per comment to rail against “anti-China” points of view. Recently, he started a “50-cent Watchlist” to collect names of suspected mercenary commenters (I love that his post shows up on websites aggregating news about the rapper).

My sense, however, is that the vast majority of the angry Chinese commenters are unpaid citizens sharing their opinions for free. There almost certainly are some people paid to make comments on sites in English and Chinese, but I seriously doubt that they make up anything close to a majority of people who make similar comments.

It’s also important to point out that not all of the Chinese voices out there are angry–the angry ones just often seem the loudest. And some of the frustrated voices are in fact quite thoughtful, like this comment left by a commenter named Cathy on a recent entry of my English blog:

I feel confused even upset when every time, we will find that there are a huge differences between the domestic reports and the western’s. As you mentioned in your blog. No offence, but I really don’t know why on earth the western media likeNYTimes are always try to report the awful side of China. And always feel free to exaggerate each issue. I admit that China do has some unfavorable facts like every nation does, but I don’t think it can be described in such a terrible way. Take the report on people who were waiting to buy the tickets as an example. Yeah, it didn’t go soomthly actually but it can be understand since China is such a vast country. Why not regarding it as a high time which showing the enthusiam of Chinese people and the supports from them? And what’s more,I really don’t think Chinese people were suffered a lot in buying the tickets this time. Yet, i know complain is complain, I can do nothing on this issue. All of these remarks are my personal view. I want to lieten your opinion on it, John. if possible.

I had linked to this NYTimes story about ticket sales.

Obviously, the tone of the comment is completely different from the previous one, but some of the sentiment is the same: frustration that the Western media often focuses on negative stories about China. I appreciate thoughtful comments like this, and wish that some of the angry voices could calm down and engage in a similar tone. I’m not a huge fan of Richard Nixon, but this is one of my favorite quotes:

We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another – until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices.

Like Thomas, I also find the angry, threatening comments frustrating and disconcerting, but I’m confused about what to do about them. They are more than just normal “trolls” in an online forum, because they represent a fairly prevalent train of thought in one of the most important countries in the world (and, on a personal level, the country I live in).

Discounting them as paid government hacks is not the answer, because most of them almost aren’t paid government hacks, and labeling them as so is in some way making their point–that Westerners think the Chinese government is an evil dictatorship that keeps Chinese people from expressing their true point of view, and that the Chinese people are meek sheep that go along with the government even though they all secretly long for rights that they are denied.

For now, my plan is to engage the voices as much as I can (as Thomas tries to do here), and in particular work to engage thoughtful voices like Cathy’s.

I wonder if anyone will give me 50 cents a post…

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