50 centers hold court in China

160 Guonian Road, Shanghai, early 2000s
My neighbor in Shanghai at the compound where I used to live was one of the many people responsible for monitoring who came in and out of 160 Guonian Road. 
By Bill Marcus, Commentary, The Times Union
Updated 6:56 am, Friday, May 2, 2014

In case you missed it, you can now get 50 cents for each political posting advocating for a position to try to sway public opinion.

Of course, that money is coming from the Communist Party of China, and you better be conversant in Mandarin, since the public they’re paying you to sway is in China. Radio Free Asia broke the story (http://tinyurl.com/muqfrgq).

China’s “50-cent Army” — a sort of renegade couch potato (or, perhaps, “rice bowl”) group that sits on its collective butt while trying “to covertly direct online discussions on ‘mass incidents’ of civil unrest and rioting,” according to RFA, will really just be advancing the ball down the field toward the Communist Party’s goal posts. They’ve been around for a while. But when you think about it — and Fox News — politics there is no different than here.

In Shanghai “lao tai tai” (old ladies, and some old men) sat at the gate of my housing complex with red armbands. Their job was to watch and take note of everyone who came and went. How is that different from the self-appointed Gladys Kravitzes who used to spend their days in the apartment building where I lived in Albany gazing out the window and monitoring the visitor parking spaces to see if those who used them were really visitors or non-compliant live-in boyfriends and girlfriends for whom the cooperating tenant was too cheap to buy a second parking place?

At least the ones in China had an official post and an institutionalized reason to be there. Plus an armband! That gave them face and purpose, which, when you’re old, grey and in the way, can be more valuable than money.

Isn’t that the reason for the whole committeeman structure we have in places like Albany? A sort of neighborhood civic watch, armed with a political stand-your-ground mandate to keep an eye on interlopers?

As a newspaper reporter in the 1990s covering Colonie, I was amazed at the hundreds of dollars each member of the town committee would get just prior to election day. How much of that ended up in their pockets? And, why shouldn’t it, just because tradition (and law) mandates self-sacrifice.

“In Albany the night before each election somebody would slip a $5 bill under the door. We didn’t have to ask. We knew what that was for,” a friend once told me.

Street money, as it is called, is “like manure” and meant to be “spread around” to make vote totals grow, to paraphrase Dolly Levi. (A legal note here: New York Election Law says if you pay or even enter into a wager about who might win on Election Day, that’s illegal, since it’s technically bribery. But nothing in the law talks about what happens before midnight. For more on that see: lobbying.)

So, go study Chinese! And then sign up for the CPC’s certified training course so you can be a member of the “50-cent army.”

Thanks to the efforts of our two patriotic political parties over here, the unemployed here can’t make a dime. But upload the Chinese microblogging service WEIBO and start texting away. We lumpen proles will enjoy the benefits of the glorious globalization revolution!

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Bill Marcus, of Purchase, spent 10 years as a print and broadcast journalist in China. His email address is http://www.billmarcus.com.