A Chinese hacker group says it has penetrated the computer system of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's powerful Youth League, exposing 100 internal documents that reveal the inner workings of a nationwide network of online propagandists known as the "50-cent army."
"Our heroic team of hackers has captured a bandit stronghold, the database of the headquarters of the 50-cent army," a group calling itself Unicorn Nocturne said in a statement on its Facebook page on Wednesday.
The post linked to a shared folder in Google Drive containing 100 documents, including confidential internal directives and reports giving an unprecedented glimpse into China's online propaganda machine.
The files reveal the personal details of "50-cent" online propaganda workers at top Shanghai colleges, including the city's University of Politics and Law and Foreign Studies University.
The leaked files include lists of real names, student numbers, QQ chat addresses, WeChat numbers, microblog accounts, and even cell phone numbers of the League branch secretaries and propaganda secretaries in each university department.
They also contain a progress report on the League's development of its online propaganda army and an April 4 report into online public opinion from Shanghai's Donghua University, which includes reports on online reaction to recent news items considered sensitive by the government.
'Paying close attention'
Monitored news items include the People's Liberation Army (PLA) naval escort fleet in Yemen, and the Myanmar envoy's formal apology regarding the deaths and injuries of Chinese residents near the border after bombing by the Myanmar air force.
Comments on President Xi Jinping's setting up of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and Apple's rollout of an iPhone exchange scheme in China are also tracked.
The files also show that Youth League propagandists are actively monitoring the Chinese Internet for posts or comments linked to the forthcoming anniversary of the military crackdown on the 1989 student-led pro-democracy movement on Tiananmen Square.
The documents include an emergency directive and working requirements from the municipal Youth League committee's education department.
"Universities should immediately seek to understand and keep their finger on the pulse of ideological attitudes and collective activities among students during the June 4 period," the directive says.
"At the same time, they must pay close attention to properly carrying out the work of monitoring and closely following individuals, microblogs, and [student] forums," it said.
A sensitive anniversary
Chongqing-based academic and political commentator Zhang Qi said the forthcoming anniversary of the June 4 massacre still remains sensitive, even 26 years on.
"They see [June 4] as a political problem that is an important part of their work," Zhang said.
He said the League's online operations are similar to its offline activities when he was at college.
"Actually, this was already the case when I was at university, when there were a few goody-two-shoes students among the student population," he said.
"And yet they had rather vague opinions on a number of issues. They weren't student leaders, but they acted as a bridge between teachers and students."
The files show that the Chinese government is actively recruiting large numbers of hard-liners to serve in the "50-cent army," so named because of the rumored word rate earned by its members, Zhang said.
"The fact that these documents have been leaked shows that they are looking for people with hard-line politics and the correct ideology to serve as online propagandists," Zhang said.
But he said people who had been trained to think like everyone else wouldn't make good propagandists.
"Trying to win an ideological victory with a bunch of thought slaves is never going to happen," Zhang said.
Suzhou-based high school teacher Pan Lu said the 50-cent army in China is already regarded with great suspicion among China's 642 million netizens, however.
"They want to control the comments that come on the back of news stories, so as to mislead people," Pan said, saying the rhetoric used harks back to the political turmoil of the Mao-era Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
"There's not much difference between their thinking and that of the big-character posters of the Cultural Revolution, and their aim is to protect the one-party dictatorship of the Communist Party," she said.
"They want to laud the Communist Party and endorse all of its actions," Pan said. "Their methods are shameless."
She said the hacker attack constituted a "normal protest activity on the part of citizens."
"[The hackers] are using their actions to promote social progress, to make a contribution," she said.
According to Zhang Qi, the leak will likely shock those in charge. "I bet they didn't expect them to be leaked from their immediate superiors," he said.
"This is very funny, and it illustrates a popular Chinese saying: 'Responsibility devolves to the front line, while problems come from the top.'"
He said the files appear to have been leaked from fairly high up with the Shanghai municipal government.
"There are files there from all the [universities in Shanghai]," Zhang said.
"At the very least this will have come from a student organization that is of the highest ranking within the municipal Youth League committee," Zhang said.
A Youth League document leaked last month said there are now around one million volunteer youth propagandists on China's tightly controlled Internet, with higher education as their main focus.
The leak came as an official Chinese military newspaper warned that the Internet had become an "ideological battlefield" where wars could be lost and won against "hostile Western force."
"The Internet has grown into an ideological battlefield, and whoever controls the tool will win the war," a People's Liberation Army (PLA) Daily editorial said on Wednesday, calling for cyber-security measures to ensure "online ideological safety."
"Western hostile forces along with a small number of Chinese 'ideological traitors,' have maliciously attacked the Communist Party of China, and smeared our founding leaders and heroes, with the help of the Internet," the paper warned in a translation published by the official Xinhua news agency.
It further warned that Western powers seek to overthrow the regime with a "color revolution" and "constitutional democracy."
"Regime collapse that can occur overnight often starts from long-term ideological erosion," the paper warned.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.