Tea Leaf Nation

How to Spot a State-Funded Chinese Internet Troll

Personal attacks, appeals to communal loyalty, and pleas for patience are some telltale signs.

Chinese people use computers at an internet bar in Beijing on September 30, 2009. Press rights group Reporters Without Borders said on September 29 that a "paranoid" China had blocked tens of thousands of websites ahead of the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic. AFP PHOTO/LIU Jin (Photo credit should read LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images)
Chinese people use computers at an internet bar in Beijing on September 30, 2009. Press rights group Reporters Without Borders said on September 29 that a "paranoid" China had blocked tens of thousands of websites ahead of the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic. AFP PHOTO/LIU Jin (Photo credit should read LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images)

They are “obsessed with online games.” They are “convinced their viewpoint is the right one.” They are “fiercely ignorant.” And they may — just may — be paid Chinese government flacks.

That’s how one aggrieved web user described one of China’s least-liked groups of people: the wumao. It means “fifty cents” in Chinese and began as shorthand for Internet users on the Chinese government’s payroll. (Their ranks are unknown, although estimates peg them between tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands nationwide. Pay appears to vary.) It’s since become slang for web users who reliably take the government’s side in any online debate or comment forum, or at least pounce on anyone who doesn’t.

In a rare leak in December 2014, one anonymous wumao shared his or her secrets with a Chinese blogger. The leaked documents indicate some wumao are lazy, preferring to pump out government-suggested posts verbatim. But some wumao are harder working and take the time to respond to users directly.

A post making a recent round on Weibo, China’s Twitter, takes aim at how those ripostes might look. They range from questioning another commenter’s patriotism — and sometimes insinuating that anyone doubting the party line might be better off Stateside — to asking for patience as China’s government continues to push forward reforms. To be sure, not everyone writing such stuff is actually a paid government troll, but the frequent use of the term indicates both the mistrust surrounding online political discussion and the climate of doubt that bona fide wumao have created.

Given that online speech considered harmful to social stability can be prosecuted as a crime, the anonymous post purports not to be about politics at all, but instead, a single chicken egg; the egg represents Communist Party policies, and the eggs next door, by all appearances, represent American democracy. The author envisions how a wumao might respond to the simple critique: “This chicken egg tastes bad.” Some of the funniest or most revealing are selected below.

Governing is hard.

“If you’re so skilled, make your own tastier egg.”

“The chicken who made that egg is a hardworking, brave, and good-willed chicken.”

Remember where you come from.

“Generations before you have grown up on these eggs; and you dare say they are bad?”

“However bad it tastes, it’s from the chicken in your own home, so you shouldn’t say that.”

Let’s talk about America instead.

“Nonsense! Our home’s eggs are five times better than those duck eggs next door!”

“The eggs of the duck next door are even worse; why didn’t you mention that?”

“There’s no absolutely delicious egg in this world; if American eggs are so delicious, go there!”

Don’t forget what happened to the Soviet Union.

“Many homes experience conflict among family members because of duck eggs next door; their quality of life drops, and eventually, they dissolve.”

What’s your motivation?

“What’s the point of only complaining? Why don’t you go work hard and make money?”

“How dare you say the chickens we raise make bad eggs? From what standpoint are you saying this?”

“This is incitement with an ulterior motive. What are you trying to do?”

“How much did the chicken next door pay you to say that?”

“Scram; you’re not welcome here.”

Hurry up and wait.

“Everything has a process. Right now, it’s not yet time to eat those duck eggs next door.”

“Duck eggs are good, but they don’t fit with our family’s specific conditions.”

I’m depressed; you’re depressed.

“The eggs next door are just as bad. All is dark in this world, and there’s no such thing as a good egg.”

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

David Wertime is senior editor of Tea Leaf Nation. David joins FP after having co-founded Tea Leaf Nation, a news site dedicated to Chinese citizen and social media, which was acquired by the FP Group in Sept. 2013. A former lawyer in New York and Hong Kong, David first encountered China as a Peace Corps volunteer. He has appeared on BBC television, Al Jazeera English, Public Radio International, Voice of America, and other outlets as a commentator on China. Originally from the Philadelphia area, David holds a law degree from Harvard and an English degree from Yale, where he was executive editor of the Yale Herald.

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