Thomas Friedman: How Will China Reckon With the Freewheeling Opinions of Its (Government-Employed) Netizens?

New York Times op-ed sloganeer Thomas Friedman is once again in Beijing, and he has discovered that Chinese people are on the Internet. His slogan-headline for this is ” Power to the (Blogging) People “:

With an estimated 70 million bloggers, China’s leaders are under constant pressure now to be more assertive by a populist- and nationalist-leaning blogosphere, which, in the absence of democratic elections, is becoming the de facto voice of the people.

Yes, the blogosphere is a difficult thing for the Chinese government to manage. That is why, though Friedman doesn’t quite notice it, the government is actively managing it.

The powerful force of Internet patriotism that Friedman sees (read: has been told about) in China is better understood as at least three distinct forces. One is, yes, as a Chinese Internet expert told Friedman, a genuine spirit of nationalism, exceptionalism, and resentment toward the West. Many Chinese people do feel that way.

How many feel that way, and how strongly, is a bit harder to judge, since the second force shaping Chinese Internet discourse is the government’s busy program of censoring online criticism or discussion of “sensitive” issues. The patriotic chorus can’t help but sound louder with all the dissonant voices cut out.

Together, these two forces would probably be enough produce a “de facto voice of the people” that was pro-government. But just in case, the authorities also have another Internet strategy: paying people to post things that the government wants posted .

Like the Great Firewall , this mass sock-puppetry campaign is an open secret with a catchy name: the paid apologists are called the “Wu Mao Dang,” or Fifty-Cent Party , after the purported going rate (in Chinese currency) for each pro-government posting.

Again, this is not an obscure fact , except to Thomas Friedman. The policy of paying for Internet commentary is so well known that it has backfired, so that writers who express too much enthusiasm for the government are dismissed as paid plants. Fifty-cent banknotes have become a metonym for official deception; earlier this year, during an appearance by a provincial propaganda official at Renmin University, a protester threw 50-cent bills at the stage .

Can Friedman be that oblivious? Maybe the best-selling pundit is making a subtle and powerful point here. On first read, there’s no obvious connection between Friedman’s “BEIJING” dateline and the content of the column. More prepacked opinions from the globe-trotter, as usual. But by omitting any mention of the sensitive subject of the Fifty-Cent Party—or of online censorship at all—he’s capturing the authentic tone of the Chinese Internet.