A leaked voice message and series of screenshots from WeChat Enterprise appears to reveal a “public sentiment guidance” meeting by members of the so-called “Fifty Cent Party.” Some of the screen names involved were leaked earlier this summer on a spreadsheet of “payouts and bonuses” for public sentiment guides. The chat screenshots, which CDT has translated below, were posted to Weibo on August 14 by Zonghengsihai67 (@纵横四海67). They remain online. The discussion touches on payment and promotion, an upcoming group trip to the seaside town of Beidaihe, and how to interact with “radical” netizens. Some team members, apparently part-time contract workers, ask about getting an “official position” (正式编制), or gaining full-time work.
The team seems to be operating at the national level under the Cyberspace Administration of China, according to a report on the leaks by Radio Free Asia. “According to an observer, there are cyberspace administration offices in all locales. This group, however, belongs to a key internet commentator team that is an extension of the Cyberspace Administration of China, known commonly as the High-level Fifty Cent Team.”
Members of the team appear to pose as liberal netizens in order to infiltrate private WeChat groups. Once inside, they can work to steer the conversation, or push group members to incriminate themselves. This ruse has previously led to members of the group being misidentified as U.S.-funded anti-communist activists.
Group leader Kongzhongbaolei (@空中堡垒) suggests at one point in the group chat, “when dealing with radicals like Tiger and Youtiao, let them get more extreme, until they break the law and can be picked up by the Public Security Bureau.” Chinese nationalists have recently accused foreign instigators of using similar tactics to discredit patriotic protesters over South China Sea arbitration.
Team member Meixuepiaoxiang (@梅雪飘香) tells the group that she has been outed and will have to relegate herself to behind-the-scenes work. She is referring to the spreadsheet listing team members and payments for May 2016 that was leaked on June 27 by the nationalist website Chawang Zhongguo. The spreadsheet, posted in two screenshots, lists payouts and bonuses by username, with Meixuepiaoxiang ranked just under team leader Kongzhongbaolei. Chawang found Meixuepiaowang‘s Weibo account and Sina blog, where she had posted “anti-communist, anti-China” information. Chawang posted screenshots of some of her Weibo posts that “spread malicious rumors attacking Mao Zedong,” “flatter” former US ambassador to China Gary Locke, and indicate her “relationship to Qin Huohuo,” the screen name of a blogger currently serving a three-year prison sentence for “spreading online rumors” about the former Ministry of Railways. Chawang also dug up the social media accounts of three others listed on the spreadsheet.
On July 1, the Communist Youth League Central Committee posted an article to Weibo investigating Chawang’s claims. Titled “Is the ‘American Elements’ Team’s ‘Public Sentiment Payout and Bonus Remittance Table’ Real or Fake?,” the article concludes, “Judging from their social relationships and correlating reposts, the four suspicious persons have pervasive online connections with Qin Huohuo, Xue Manzi [also known as Charles Xue], and Yang Hengjun, as well as people including Mao Yushi and He Weifang.” The Youth League article implies that the team members are financially supported by the U.S.
“The Youth League has put everyone on the defensive,” Sunyuanxia (@孙源霞) writes in the group chat. “At least the leaders were able to take care of it without too much difficulty.”
According to the leaked spreadsheet, team leader Kongzhongbaolei earned 13,880 RMB ($2,086 USD) in May, while Meixuepiaoxiang earned 10,560 RMB ($1,589 USD). The last member listed earned 6,720 RMB ($1,010 USD). By comparison, the average monthly salary of employees in major Chinese cities is 6,070 RMB ($912 USD) as of the end of 2015, according to the job recruitment site zhaopin.com.
Soundcloud user Boxuntai leaked the voice message, which seems to have been recorded on August 12 by Kongzhongbaolei, the same day as the chat. Topics include a review of the activities and awards given at the group’s Beidaihe meeting and positive feedback on the team’s latest projects, including “guidance” on the trials of rights defense lawyers in Tianjin, the death of Beijing resident Lei Yang in police custody, and protests in Lianyungang over a planned nuclear waste plant.
The voice message also alerts team members to their next project: guiding public opinion on next year’s leadership transition. In the group chat, Kongzhongbaolei explains that the voice message is intended to “prevent leaks.” How the recording and screenshots became public is still unclear.
Updated at 12:28 PDT on August 29, 2016: A ninth screenshot has been leaked by Weibo user Zonghengsihai67. CDT has translated it below:
Translation of screenshots by Nick.