On May 17, a hacker nicknamed XiaoLan leaked a package of emails revealing details of the recruitment of college students by the Shanghai League of Communist Youth, one of the most significant Chinese Communist Party organizations under the single party regime. The students serve as voluntary online commentators that spread positive energy and “purify” the internet.
The existence of the commentators is not a state secret: the latest round of massive recruitment was revealed in a document issued by the China Communist Youth League in February 2015. The League set out to recruit no less than 20 percent of its members to serve as “civilization volunteers” by spreading positive energy and acting as models for “good netizens”.
The League had more than 89 million members at the end of 2013, which means it must recruit around 18 million “civilization volunteers” to meet its target. The characters depicted in the sketch at the top of this post are two figurative examples of “civilization volunteers” posted by the Youth League in April on China's Twitter-like Weibo.
Pro-government Internet commentators are a constant target for criticism by China's netizens, who give them the sarcastic nickname of “wumaodang” or “50 Cent Party” in English, since it is said that they receive a typical payment of half a Chinese Yuan per post, equivalent to 8 cents in U.S. dollar terms.
Though the nature of their work is similar, the “civilization volunteers” are political loyalists who do not receive payment at all. The hacker's revelation shows that the League mobilized its members for Internet-civilizing via its college sub-branches.
The leak is a zipped package of around 11.49 gigabytes in size, consisting of nearly 10,000 emails with a number of attachments. Most of the emails address the routine activities of the Youth League in local colleges and high schools, detailing statistics of League activities, how many league cadres are in each college, reports on student opinion about recent social events, and manuscripts from leaders’ speeches.
Within this vast archive, some emails with subject lines such as “Form of Establishing Youth League Online Civilization Volunteers Division in Shanghai’s Colleges” and “Registration Form of Online Civilization Volunteers’ Basic Information,” provide an interesting glimpse into the operation of youth civilization volunteers in higher education institutions.
Some of the attachments contain spreadsheets counting “civilization volunteers” in each college and listing personal information — job titles, QQ, WeChat and Weibo accounts, as well as mobile phone numbers.
Other files specifically recorded students’ publicity assignments on Weibo and WeChat. Their responsibilities involve posting enthusiastic comments on key events and themes. The volume of views, reposts and comments for each post are subsequently recorded in spreadsheets to monitor performance. Tasks vary from publicizing “Xi Jinping's speech” and “My China Dream” to “commemorate the Nanjing massacre.” The term “China Dream” is a political theme under Xi's leadership to unify the nation and the people.
A document “Notice of Establishing Youth League Online Propaganda Division in Shanghai’s Colleges” lists six responsibilities for the online propaganda team:
To establish youth league online propaganda division in Shanghai’s colleges, we should emphasize the function of team members, and make a contribution to building a clean Internet space and strengthening the mainstream of thoughts and sentiments. Responsibilities include the following:
- Following the unified deployment, actively participate in “Youth's Positive Voice” Internet Cultural Action and concentrate on publicizing “Youth's Positive Voice” and chorus theme guided by youth thought, to boost the positive energy of youth.
- Repost and comment on content as designated by the Central Youth League, Municipal Youth Leagues, the Youth League in Colleges, on personal WeChat, Weibo, QQ, Fetion, Renren and forums and websites popular among young students and other websites.
- Follow Youth League official Weibo and WeChat accounts at its central level, school, primary school and municipal levels. Also follow the college’s official Weibo and WeChat account. Repost and comment on content on these platforms.
- Repost and comment on positive content you received on various media platforms by personal social media tools (e.g. WeChat, Weibo, and etc.).
- Meet the demands of following posts, reposting them and commenting on them in online spaces. Speak out in a timely way and positively guide mistaken opinions and thoughts in order to grow mainstream thought and sentiment on the Internet.
- Everyone’s volume of reposting posts should be no less than five per week.
Yang Kangling, like many China's netizens, who despise pro-government Internet commentators, raged at the phenomenon of students blindly distributing propaganda:
Now students lack curiosity, imagination and critical thought. Some colleges even organise flocks of students to work as “Internet commentators.” In this way “stability crushes everything” to sing praises while remaining indifferent about the darker sides of society, unconsciously defending its ugliness. [They] insult people who criticize these dark sides as traitors of [China's] society – meifen [meaning “US cent” in English – a term used often groundlessly to suggest netizens who support democratic values are receiving money from the USA.] and take social criticism as negative energy. The basic sense of justice in society is collapsed as a result.
Twitter user Jian Alan Huang believes the civilization volunteers are “more harmful” than the 50 Cent Party, precisely because they fully believe in what they are doing:
— Jian Alan Huang (@hnjhj) May 18, 2015
Online civilization volunteers are just Red Guards from that f***ing era [the Cultural Revolution, 1966-76]. Although they have a new name, they are still the cannon fodder in the fight for the red regime. They are more harmful than the 50 Cent Party. A whole generation will lose the ability to think and learn and eventually become bullies and enemies of humankind.
The government mouthpiece People's Daily reported on April 16 that the recruitment of civilization volunteers was proceeding at pace in many provinces, including Jiangxi, Hunan, Henan, Guangdong, Hubei, Gansu, Xinjiang, Hebei and Anhui.