Chen loved his country. He loved China’s glittering past, its refusal to bend down to the great powers, its promise of a better future.
But if there was one thing Chen didn’t love, it was his job.
That’s because he was a wumao.
And he was one of the best.
Chen had been compelled to become one of China’s wumao – one of its anonymous, government-sponsored army of internet commentators and trolls – when his father in China had been found guilty of a minor indiscretion. The indiscretion itself, which Chen didn’t like to think about, was minor enough that it didn’t land his father in jail … but significant enough that it required some act of contrition on the part of his family.
It had been suggested that Chen, educated at Harvard and earning a six-figure salary on Wall Street, may be able to pay off his debt. There was desperate need for a wumao who could successfully promote China’s interests on the internet in the West. The domestic wumao market in China was already covered – what was needed was someone who was savvy enough about the West to successfully comment on Western websites without automatically being accused of being a wumao.
Because to be caught acting as a wumao was the worst thing that could befall one.
Thus Chen had been called back to one of China’s more distant provinces to work in a dank computer room with the other pro-government commentators. His skill as a wumao meant that he was acting No.2 of his department. He was currently writing a style guide for his fellow wumao on how to work in the West.
It wasn’t his colleagues’ fault that they weren’t educated in the West like him and didn’t fully understand how “freedom of the press” worked there. They didn’t understand the syntax, the grammar, the cultural references, the idioms of the West. That was why many were caught out when commenting on newspaper or magazine websites, sometimes by Chinese students overseas themselves. Their clumsy approach – for instance, getting a Simpsons reference or a sports observation wrong – often led for them to be outed as wumao. Under Chen’s guidance, they were doing better … but there was still much work to be done.
One of the problems Chen had with his job was the pay. Indeed, the saying about wumao being the 50 Cent Army – that they were paid 50 Chinese cents a post – wasn’t exactly far from the mark. It was certainly a lot less than what he earned on Wall Street. Plus where he was sent had no decent nightclubs, cafes or restaurants … another hardship he had to silently endure.
Then there was the work, which he felt was slightly beneath him. He wasn’t matching wits with the great minds of the West on the internet sites. Their great minds were busy occupied elsewhere, perhaps writing the article themselves above the comment section boxes. Or they had better things to do than comment on internet sites. His adversaries were overwhelmingly men of middling education with too much time on their hands and too much fondness for their own opinions. “Keyboard warriors”.
That wasn’t to say that the work itself didn’t have its rewards. Chen liked to pride himself in the skill he brought to the task. Educated in the West, he understood the nuances of the culture. He understood that, although the West often complained about Communist Party propaganda, Westerners existed in a world of propaganda of their own. Only the West’s propaganda was more invisible, more subtle … and more professional. It had entire multi-billion-dollar industries devoted to selling messages without the targets knowing they were being targeted. What was called wumao in the East could just have easily have been called “PR” in the West.
Indeed, two of the books he encouraged his staff to read were Confessions Of An Advertising Man and How To Win Friends And Influence People, both fine guides on how to win over the Western mind.
(Chen sometimes wondered if it might not be more effective to outsource the entire wumao department to the West. The cost could be greater, but the results more convincing. And there would be many, many companies in the West that would accept such work.)
Working as a wumao in the West required a different mindset than, say, working in China. One had to seem more “friendly” … more flexible. More ready to abandon an argument than risk being seen as “uncool”.
In Chen’s mind, comments were to be kept short and to the point. Upper case was never to be used, upper case being the province of the unbalanced. One should never be the first to post on any given subject – being overkeen was suspicious.
Comments should never be too rigid or dogmatic … or too numerous. Sometimes he had to tap a colleague on the shoulder to step away from a computer and a conversation when they became too angry and risked being identified.
In short, their comments were supposed to seem like they came from Westerners themselves.
Chen often used a Western-sounding handle – he had several, in fact. He knew when to back off, when to respond to an argument with a jokey image or meme. Humour was very effective in winning an internet argument. And it was something Westerners didn’t expect from the “humourless” Chinese.
They all had certain key points they were supposed to push. Fortunately, China had a great story to sell. What other country had lifted so many millions out of poverty in so short a time? What other country had given the world gunpowder, porcelain and printing? What country came to the world’s rescue during the 2008 global economic meltdown? China had many, many positive aspects one could casually drop into a net conversion.
Certainly his department had an easier job of it than their Russian counterparts.
But Chen’s true enemy wasn’t the West: he had liked living there and thought China could forge a working relationship with it. And China and America were so interlinked they were calling the combined being “Chimerica”.
No, his true enemy was his boss.
Because he wanted to return to his former life as a banker. And he had no idea how long his penance was supposed to be.
Thus he had begun his own campaign. He would submit small errors in his entries. Perhaps a comment might not be fervent or patriotic enough. Or a joke might seem too Western. Perhaps he would go soft when he should go hard, go slow when he needed to address a trending topic immediately. Perhaps he would even allow himself to be unmasked online as a wumao. As they would say in the West … “whoops”.
He would be moved on.
And finally he would be free.
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