After an online argument of a pro-government troll or “civilization volunteer” escalated into a well publicized offline street fight, many people started voicing their criticism of the Chinese Communist Party's strategy in manipulating public opinions.
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.
Hou like other civilization volunteers was recruited young and is rewarded in exchange for posting pro-government and pro-Communist party comments online. Huo participated in an “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 Twitter-like Chinese micro-blogging service Weibo:
[Before and after the patriotic youth was beaten: I learned how to speak nasty from others] Before and after the patriotic youth from Shandong got beaten, he claimed that he always squabbled with other netizens for his patriotism. Because of that his photos have been parodied for many times. He and his girlfriend had been subjected to flesh search and their private information were revealed, leading to their breakup. His nasty comments just copied others’ and his abuse just learned from others. His father worried police’s punishment on Hou was too harsh and would affect his joining into 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 are even patriotic.
Some believed that patriotic trolls like Hou could lead to frenzy 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. “Special investigator” reported on the result of the poll:
Poll on [Whether Wendang police's administration detention of Hou Jusen is appropriate?] In 22 hours, around 7000 has voted. 85.7% supported the police, showing the Communist Youth League and its propaganda team didn’t win the public opinion. 7.2% complained that the police should consider the identity of Hou as a patriotic youth. 3.4% believed that the police should give face to Communist Youth League. The 10.5% [the adding up of 7.2% and 3.4%] revolutionary mass is unbelievable.
Zhou Ze, a famous lawyer echoed disbanding the League:
Is it a drive to disband the Communist Youth League? I definitely agree. The most idling organizations among those agencies spending taxpayers’ money are all levels of Youth League! Much Ado About Nothing. Disbanding is the best!
Hu Yong, a professor with Peking University, also denounced Communist Youth League for imposing inappropriate political pressure on the local police. He criticized their members for acting like the Red Guards who had cruelly persecuted others in the name of patriotism during the Cultural Revolution half a century ago:
Yesterday you were happily throwing words at others, today you accused me for all the wrongs. The Central Communist League has fallen, together with 80% of its sub-branches. A large number of the grassroots committees of the League have fallen one after another, in glorious manner like the Red Guards in new era. The most bloodily fall has taken place in Jiangxi, Anhui, Gansu, Qinghai, Yunnan, Guizhou, Jilin. Qinghai is the most courageous one, Guizhou the most eye-catching one. After the release of the police investigation, they did not give any response and there wasn't any reflection. I condemn the Communist Youth League.
An investment consultant compared China’s “patriotic youth” to Boxer, a group of rioters who had killed foreigners and demolished churches in Qing dynasty:
Do you think China has changed after over a century? Nothing. In Qing dynasty the ruling power was called the bannermen, now red gene; then the ruling mechanic was ancestor family discipline, now good traditions; then the top ruler was called Old Buddha, now old leader; then the nationalist was Boxer, now the patriotic youth.
Zhang Ming, a well-known political scientist and a critic of the government, mocked the patriotic trolls:
Those who abuse under my posts everyday are all patriotic youth. Cursing is their mere patriotic practice, which seems very easy and cool in China.
Wang Shuo, a famous author and a critic, pointed out that patriotism should not be an exclusive club:
Strike against foreign enemies by attacking their own fellows, that’s a lost trick reinvented by the patriotic rogues. Patriotism has degenerated into a kind of privilege with which anyone can suddenly become the host of the country and damage others legitimately. Don’t humiliate patriotism!