Hostname: page-component-5d59c44645-mrcq8 Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-03-01T08:28:31.242Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Defending the Authoritarian Regime Online: China's “Voluntary Fifty-cent Army”

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 October 2015

Rongbin Han*
Department of International Affairs, University of Georgia. Email:


Recent studies on internet politics in China have gone beyond the once dominant control–liberalization perspective and directed intellectual attention to the varieties of online activism. Based on extensive in-depth online ethnographic work, this project explores the pluralization of online expression in Chinese cyberspace. Following a constituency of internet users who identify themselves as the “voluntary fifty-cent army,” the paper explores how these users acquire and consolidate their identity and combat criticism that targets the authoritarian regime. Analysis of the confrontational exchanges between the “voluntary fifty-cent army” and their opponents suggests that a perspective that goes beyond state censorship and regime-challenging activism is required in order to gain a better understanding of online expression in China. Close examination of why and how internet users may voluntarily defend the authoritarian regime also reveals how the dynamics in online discourse competition may work to the authoritarian regime's advantage.


近期对于中国网络政治的研究已经逐渐超脱了曾占主导地位的“自由化-控制”视角, 开始越来越关注网络行动主义的多样性。本文基于广泛而深入的网络志研究, 探讨中国网络空间表达的多元化问题。通过跟踪观察一群自称为“自带干粮的五毛” (简称“自干五”) 的网民, 本文试图探究他们如何获得并强化“自干五”的虚拟身份认同并与网络上批评现政权的话语进行论战。这种“自干五”群体与其对手之间的言辞交锋和话语竞争表明对于中国网络表达的理解不应该局限于国家审查与体制挑战的视野。仔细分析网民为何及如何自发维护中国的现政权也有助于我们了解多元化的网络话语竞争在何种情况下会对当前的威权体制产生有利的结果。

Copyright © The China Quarterly 2015 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Barmé, Geremie R. 2009. “China's flat earth: history and 8 August 2008.” The China Quarterly 197, 6486.Google Scholar
Boas, Taylor C. 2006. “Weaving the authoritarian web: the control of internet use in nondemocratic regimes.” In Zysman, John and Newman, Abraham (eds.), How Revolutionary Was the Digital Revolution: National Responses, Market Transitions, and Global Technology. Stanford: Stanford Business Books, 361378.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Chase, Michael S., and Mulvenon, James C.. 2002. You've Got Dissent! Chinese Dissident Use of the Internet and Beijing's Counter-strategies. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.Google Scholar
China Media Project. 2011. “The surrounding gaze,” Accessed 14 November 2011.Google Scholar
Dahlberg, Lincoln. 2011. “The internet and democratic discourse: exploring the prospects of online deliberative forums extending the public sphere.” Information, Communication & Society 4(4), 615633.Google Scholar
Damm, Jens. 2007. “The internet and the fragmentation of Chinese society.” Critical Asian Studies 39(2), 273294.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Davenport, Thomas, and Beck, John. 2001. The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.Google Scholar
Deibert, Ronald, Palfrey, John, Rohozinski, Rafal and Zittrain, Jonathan (eds.). 2008. Access Denied: The Practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
Deibert, Ronald, Palfrey, John, Rohozinski, Rafal and Zittrain, Jonathan (eds.). 2010. Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power, Rights and Rule in Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Deibert, Ronald, Palfrey, John, Rohozinski, Rafal and Zittrain, Jonathan (eds.). 2011. Access Contested: Security, Identity, and Resistance in Asian Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
Esarey, Ashley, and Xiao, Qiang. 2008. “Political expression in the Chinese blogosphere.” Asian Survey 48(5), 752772.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Esarey, Ashley, and Xiao, Qiang. 2011. “Digital communication and political change in China.” International Journal of Communication 5, 298319.Google Scholar
Gilley, Bruce. 2003. “The limits of authoritarian resilience.” Journal of Democracy 14(1), 1826.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Goldsmith, Jack, and Wu, Tim. 2006. Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Gries, Peter. 2004. China's New Nationalism: Pride, Politics, and Diplomacy. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
Gries, Peter. 2005. “Chinese nationalism: challenging the state?Current History 106(683), 251–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gries, Peter, Zhang, Qingmin, Crowson, H. Michael and Cai, Huajian. 2011. “Patriotism, nationalism, and China's US policy: structures and consequences of Chinese national identity.” The China Quarterly 205, 117.Google Scholar
Han, Rongbin. 2015. “Manufacturing consent in cyberspace: China's ‘fifty-cent army’.” Journal of Current Chinese Affairs 44(2), 105134.Google Scholar
Harwit, Eric, and Clark, Duncan. 2001. “Shaping the internet in China: evolution of political control over network infrastructure and content.” Asian Survey 41(3), 377408.Google Scholar
He, Qianlian. 2008. The Fog of Censorship: Media Control in China. New York: Human Rights in China.Google Scholar
Herold, David Kurt, and Marolt, Peter (eds.). 2011. Online Society in China: Creating, Celebrating, and Instrumentalising the Online Carnival. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
Hill, Kevin A., and Hughes, John E.. 1998. Cyberpolitics: Citizen Activism in the Age of the Internet. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.Google Scholar
Hu, Andy Yinan. 2007. “The revival of Chinese leftism online.” Global Media and Communication 3(2), 233–38.Google Scholar
Hu, Yong. 2008. Zhongsheng xuanhua: wangluo shidai de geren biaoda yu gonggong taolun (The Rising Cacophony: Personal Expression and Public Discussion in the Internet Age). Nanning: Guangxi Normal University Press.Google Scholar
Hughes, Christopher. 2006. Chinese Nationalism in the Global Era. London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hung, Chin-Fu. 2010. “China's propaganda in the information age: internet commentators and the Wen'an Incident.” Issues & Studies 46(4), 149181.Google Scholar
Jiang, Ying. 2012. Cyber-Nationalism in China: Challenging Western Media Portrayals of Internet Censorship in China. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
King, Gary, Pan, Jennifer and Roberts, Molly. 2013. “How censorship in China allows government criticism but silences collective expression.” American Political Science Review 107(2), 118.Google Scholar
Kramer, Adam D.I., Guillory, Jamie E. and Hancock, Jeffrey T.. 2014. “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111(24), 8788–90.Google Scholar
Lagerkvist, Johan. 2007. The Internet in China: Unlocking and Containing the Public Sphere. Lund: Lund University.Google Scholar
Lagerkvist, Johan. 2010. After the Internet, Before Democracy. New York: Peter Lang.Google Scholar
Lei, Ya-Wen. 2011. “The political consequences of the rise of the internet: political beliefs and practices of Chinese netizens.” Political Communication 28(3), 291322.Google Scholar
Leibold, James. 2010. “More than a category: Han supremacism on the Chinese internet.” The China Quarterly 203, 539559.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Leibold, James. 2011. “Blogging alone: China, the internet, and the democratic illusion?The Journal of Asian Studies 70(4), 1023–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Li, Cheng. 2012. “The end of the CCP's resilient authoritarianism? A tripartite assessment of shifting power in China.” The China Quarterly 211, 595623.Google Scholar
Li, Guang. 2012. “The patriotic youth: minzu zhuyi xin shili” (The patriotic youth: new force of cyber nationalism). Fenghuang zhoukan 434(13), 2431.Google Scholar
Li, Ping. 2011. “Sanxia gongcheng hui shengtai, yuanshi: daba jiancheng dizhen duo” (Three Gorges project damages the ecology and CAS academician says more earthquakes after the dam), 8 June, Accessed 14 November 2011.Google Scholar
Lu, Jiongchang. 2011. “Mei zhuanjia: dalu hangmu shi ‘tie guancai,’ wuxu danxin” (American expert: mainland air carrier is an “iron coffin,” no need to worry), 19 October, Accessed 14 November 2011.Google Scholar
MacKinnon, Rebecca. 2011. “China's ‘networked authoritarianism’.” Journal of Democracy 22(2), 3246.Google Scholar
Meng, Bingchun. 2010. “Moving beyond democratization: a thought piece on the China internet research agenda.” International Journal of Communication 4, 501508.Google Scholar
Meng, Bingchun. 2011. “From steamed bun to grass mud horse: e gao as alternative political discourse on the Chinese internet.” Global Media and Communication 7(1), 3351.Google Scholar
Muhaogu. 2011. “Liuyan de cuihuawu: diaoyu yu zhengwei” (Catalyst for rumour: fishing and falsification). Jianghuai chenbao, 7 January.Google Scholar
Nathan, Andrew. 2003. “Authoritarian resilience.” Journal of Democracy 14(1), 617.Google Scholar
New Weekly. 2010. “Zhongguo hulianwang 16 nian: weiguan gaibian Zhongguo” (Sixteen years of China's internet: on-looking changes China), Xin zhoukan, 15 November.Google Scholar 2010. “Chuan Zhongguo dizhi bushihe jian gaotie, zhongkeyuan cheng xi yaoyan” (Rumours about China's geological conditions not being suitable for high-speed rail refuted by CAS as groundless), 31 October, Accessed 14 November 2011. Google Scholar
Pang, Cuiming. 2008. “Self-censorship and the rise of cyber collectives: an anthropological study of a Chinese online community.” Intercultural Communication Studies VXII(3), 5776.Google Scholar
Pang, Cuiming. 2011. “The Power of Cyber Communities: Building Collective Life in China.” PhD diss., University of Oslo.Google Scholar
Rea, Christopher. 2013. “Spoofing (e'gao) culture on the Chinese internet.” In Davis, Jessica M. and Chey, Jocelyn (eds.), Humour in Chinese Life and Culture: Resistance and Control in Modern Times. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 149172.Google Scholar
Scott, James. 1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
Shambaugh, David. 2008. China's Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
Shao, Li. 2012. “The Continuing Authoritarian Resilience under Internet Development in China: An Observation of Sina Microblog.” MA thesis, University of California, Berkeley.Google Scholar
Shapiro, Judith. 2001. Mao's War against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China. Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Shen, Simon, and Breslin, Shaun (eds.). 2010. Online Nationalism and Chinese Bilateral Relations. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.Google Scholar
Shirk, Susan L. 2008. China: Fragile Superpower. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Shirk, Susan L. (ed.). 2011. Changing Media, Changing China. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Sunstein, Cass. 2009. 2.0. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Tai, Zixue. 2006. The Internet in China. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
Tang, Fang. 2009. “Zhengzhi wangmin de shehui jingji diwei yu zhengzhi qingxiang: jiyu Qiangguo he Maoyan de tansuoxing fenxi” (Political netizens’ socio-economic status and political orientation: exploratory research on Qiangguo and Maoyan online forums). Zhongguo chuanmei baogao 8(3), 96107.Google Scholar
Thornton, Patricia. 2008. “Manufacturing dissent in transnational China: boomerang, backfire or spectacle?” In O'Brien, Kevin J. (ed.), Popular Protest in China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 179204.Google Scholar
Tong, Jingrong. 2011. Investigative Journalism in China: Journalism Power and Society. London: Bloomsbury Academic.Google Scholar
Tong, Yanqi, and Lei, Shaohua. 2013. “War of position and microblogging in China.” Journal of Contemporary China 22(80), 292311.Google Scholar
Tsui, Lokman. 2007. “An inadequate metaphor: the Great Firewall and Chinese internet censorship.” Global Dialogue 9(1–2), 6068.Google Scholar
Voci, Paola. 2010. China on Video: Smaller-screen Realities. Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
Voice of America. 2010. “Zhongguo Gansu chengren zujian wumaodang, beipi niuqu minyi” (China's Gansu province admits establishing fifty-cent army and is criticized for manipulating public opinion), 24 January, Accessed 20 July 2012.Google Scholar
Wang, Jiajun. 2012. “Cong caogen dao jingying: dalun wangluo minzu zhuyi liubian” (From grassroots to elitist: the transformation of mainland cyber nationalism). Fenghuang zhoukan 434(13), 3638.Google Scholar
Wang, Xiuning. 2010. “Weibo zhili shidai shida shijian: weiguan gaibian Zhongguo” (Top ten big events in the era of micro-blog governance: on-looking changes China), Shidai zhoubao, 29 November.Google Scholar
Wellman, Barry, and Gulia, Milena. 1999. “Net surfers don't ride alone: virtual communities as communities.” In Wellman, Barry (ed.), Networks in the Global Village. Boulder, CO: Westview, 331366.Google Scholar
Wilhelm, Anthony. 1999. “Virtual sounding boards: how deliberative is online political discussion?” In Hague, Barry and Loader, Brian (eds.), Digital Democracy: Discourse and Decision Making in the Information Age. London: Routledge, 154178.Google Scholar
Wines, Michael. 2009. “A dirty pun tweaks China's online censors,” The New York Times, 12 March.Google Scholar
Wines, Michael. 2010. “China seeks to halt book that faults its prime minister,” The New York Times, 7 July.Google Scholar
Wines, Michael. 2011. “China begins sea trials of its first aircraft carrier,” The New York Times, 11 August.Google Scholar
Wong, Edward. 2011. “Pushing China's limits on web, if not on paper,” The New York Times, 7 November.Google Scholar
Wu, Xu. 2007. Chinese Cyber Nationalism: Evolution, Characteristics, and Implications. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.Google Scholar
Xie, J., Sreenivasan, S., Korniss, G., Zhang, W., Lim, C. and Szymanski, B.K.. 2011. “Social consensus through the influence of committed minorities.” Physical Review E 84, 011130.Google Scholar
Yang, Guobin. 2003a. “The internet and the rise of a transnational Chinese cultural sphere.” Media, Culture & Society 25(4), 469490.Google Scholar
Yang, Guobin. 2003b. “The co-evolution of the internet and civil society in China.” Asian Survey 43(3), 405422.Google Scholar
Yang, Guobin. 2003c. “The internet and civil society in China: a preliminary assessment.” Journal of Contemporary China 12(36), 453475.Google Scholar
Yang, Guobin. 2007. “How do Chinese civic associations respond to the internet? Findings from a survey.” The China Quarterly 189, 122143.Google Scholar
Yang, Guobin. 2009. The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
Yang, Guobin, and Calhoun, Craig. 2007. “Media, civil society, and the rise of a green public sphere in China.” China Information 21(2), 211236.Google Scholar
Yu, Jie. 2010. Zhongguo yingdi Wen Jiabao (China's Best Actor Wen Jiabao). Hong Kong: New Century Press.Google Scholar
Zhang, Lei. 2010. “Invisible footprints of online commentators,” Accessed 10 December 2011. Google Scholar
Zhang, Lihua, and Zhang, Li. 2011. “Gaotie ‘zizhu chuangxin’ zhimi” (The myth of “self-reliant innovation” of high-speed rail), Diyi caijing ribao, 29 July.Google Scholar
Zhang, Shengjun. 2010. “Wumaodang de maozi neng xiazhu shui?” (Who will be intimidated by being labelled as fifty-cent army?), Accessed 14 November 2011.Google Scholar
Zhao, Suisheng. 1998. “A state-led nationalism: the patriotic education campaign in post-Tiananmen China.” Communist and Post-Communist Studies 31(3), 287302.Google Scholar
Zheng, Yongnian. 2007. Technological Empowerment: The Internet, State, and Society in China. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
Zheng, Yongnian, and Wu, Guoguang. 2005. “Information technology, public space, and collective action in China.” Comparative Political Studies 38(5), 507536.Google Scholar