Criticism of China's Online Propaganda Arm Mounts

By Jack Hu 5 August 2015

After an online argument involving a pro-government troll or “civilization volunteer” escalated into a well publicized offline street fight, many people have started voicing their criticism of the Chinese Communist Party’s strategy in manipulating public opinion.

Hou Jusen, a college student from Shandong Province’s Weihai city is one of the approximately 18 million “civilization volunteers” the China Communist Youth League has recruited to “spread positive energy” online since February 2015.

Like other civilization volunteers, Hou was recruited young and is rewarded in exchange for posting pro-government and pro-Communist party comments online. Huo participated in “online propaganda training”, organized by the Shandong branch of the Communist Youth League from June 29 to July 2. A few weeks later, Hou picked a quarrel with another teenager online. The two boys fixed a date to settle the score in person. On July 22, they fought in front of a college in the city.

Soon after, members of the China Communist Youth League framed the quarrel as a “patriotic youth” injured by an unidentified mob for expressing his love of country. Pro-government media outlets also depicted Hou as the victim of online bullying that escalated into real-life violence. But some netizens dug his online record to prove that Hou is a troll himself.

On July 24, Wendeng district police closed the case by ordering six individuals to spend seven to 15 days in detention. Hou was detained for 10 days. The police investigation triggered another round of debate.

A local newspaper interviewed Hou and explained how he turned into a troll. The feature story was headlined on the popular Chinese micro-blogging service Weibo:

“Before and after the patriotic youth from Shandong got beaten, he claimed that he always squabbled with other netizens for his patriotism,” the report read. “His nasty comments just copied others and his abuse was learned from others. His father worried the police punishment on Hou was too harsh and would affect his chances of joining the army.”

Among thousands of comments under the post on Weibo, the majority thought Hou deserved the administrative detention.

Since Hou posts pro-government and pro-Communist party comments online in exchange for monetary or non-material gains, as an online civilization volunteer, critics wondered whether people like him could even be considered patriotic.

Some believed that patriotic trolls like Hou could lead to frenzied nationalism and suggested disbanding the Communist Youth League. The organization’s network covers all levels from towns to province, from schools to state-run companies, with the major political task of mobilizing millions of youth to follow the party.

A Weibo poll on whether Hou should have been punished in administrative detention indicated that the civilization volunteer program has failed to win broad public support. A user by the name of “special investigator” reported on the result of the poll:

“In 22 hours, around 7000 voted. 85.7% supported the police, showing the Communist Youth League and its propaganda team didn’t win public opinion.”

A longer version of this story was  originally published on the Global Voices website under the title ‘Despite Millions of Recruits, Criticism of China’s Online Civilization Army Mounts’.