Manufacturing Consent in Cyberspace: China’s “Fifty-Cent Army”

Rongbin Han


Studies on public expression in China tend to focus on how the state and internet users (netizens) struggle over the limits of online expression. Few have systematically traced discourse competition within state-imposed boundaries, particularly how the authoritarian state has adapted to manage, rather than censor, online expression. This paper explores and evaluates the state’s attempts to manipulate online expression without resorting to censorship and coercion by examining the role of internet commentators, known as the “fifty-cent army”, in Chinese cyberspace. To cope with the challenge of online expression, the authoritarian state has mobilized its agents to engage anonymously in online discussions and produce apparently spontaneous pro-regime commentary. However, due to a lack of proper motivation and the persistence of old propaganda logic, this seemingly smart adaptation has proven ineffective or even counter-productive: It not only decreases netizens’ trust in the state but also, ironically, suppresses the voices of regime supporters.

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