Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Shiny new app, same old propaganda

It sounds like some of the review sheets I have handed out, but with more restrictions on exact answers.

Uber but for Xi Jinping
If there’s one thing we know for certain about China in 2019, it’s that people there love their apps. They use WeChat to talk with friends; they spend hours battling virtual enemies on PUBG; they binge-watch short videos on Douyin. And so why shouldn’t the Communist Party get in on the action?

Xuexi Qiangguo — “study and make the nation great” — has become ubiquitous in China, an instant messenger, news aggregator and social network all in one introduced by the Publicity Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in January. The first and second characters in the name, when combined — xuexi — mean “study/learn”; the same character, xi, also happens to be the character in President Xi Jinping’s surname. The app’s name, thus, can also be read as “study Xi and make the nation great.” And the Chinese are doing so, by the tens of millions.

As of late March, Xuexi Qiangguo had been downloaded over 73 million times on Huawei’s app store. It’s also currently the most-downloaded app on Apple’s Chinese app store, which is hard to reconcile with its average rating of just 2.7 stars out of five, until you take into account that all government and state-owned-enterprise employees, along with tens of millions of party members, have been “encouraged” to use it…

I wanted to experience Xuexi Qiangguo for myself… So last month I downloaded it and signed on. Suddenly there I was, immediately connected to my friends and colleagues. In the weeks since, I’ve been receiving several notifications a day; they include news coverage of Mr. Xi’s activities, a “golden quote of the day” from our president, “red patriotic songs” for me to listen to and links to online courses on traditional Chinese cultural heritage.

To do well on Xuexi Qiangguo requires a serious time commitment; those under peer pressure to use the app are typically expected to score two or three dozen points a day, and sometimes more. “Thirty points per day would only put me at the bottom among the members of the party branch I belong to,” one user on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, told me. “My colleagues are so passionate about competing,” the user said…

But to really score highly, I needed to take the quizzes — to answer questions on Mr. Xi’s speeches and works. That was where the real points were: If I correctly answered all the quiz questions, I could earn 24 points total.

And the questions were easy. The first one I encountered: “(Blank) is contemporary China’s Marxism, the 21st century’s Marxism, the guidance for our Party and our people to achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, a proven, practically great, powerful ideological weapon, and must be persisted in and developed consistently over a long term.” The answer? “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” of course. What else?

Another question looked trickier at first glance: “Sticking to the Party’s overall leadership and coordination among different sectors, to build up a system with the Party’s full leadership role, and guarantee that the Party’s leadership is carried out in domains such as (blank), (blank), and (blank)”. Luckily, it was multiple choice. Among the answers were (A) Reforming, development and maintaining stability; (B) Domestic politics, foreign policy and defense; and (C) Governing the Party, the nation and the military. The answer was all of the above; the party is omnipotent, our leader in all arenas.

I gave up after about half an hour, earning a measly nine points. “Post your point of view and collect one point,” the app prompted. Why not? I thought, and moved into the comment section, only to be greeted with instructions like “only valid points of view will be awarded points” and “good comments will be prioritized for display.”…

Developed by the tech giant Alibaba, Xuexi Qiangguo has a certain polish to it. And it comes with some additional perks: Users can redeem their study points in businesses across the country for gifts like pastries, tablets, restaurant discounts and even free sightseeing tickets.

But no matter how fancy the new products look on the surface, at their core they remain the mandatory study of ideologically correct materials and the demonstration of allegiance to the central government. The minute I entered the quiz section, memories of my middle school years in Chinese classrooms came flooding back: the grandiose language, the endless repetition, the fixed answers, the publicly displayed class rankings — the collective memories of Chinese students across several generations. Many Weibo users have pointed out the parallels between Xuexi Qiangguo and the fervent “Little Red Book” campaigns of the Mao era.

And as with so many instances in which the government demands correct thought, there are already those who have learned to cheat the system. There are a sizable number of articles on how to earn credits efficiently circulating on WeChat, while tech-savvy users have turned to GitHub to download software that will earn points for them on the app automatically while they spend their time elsewhere…

So how effective has this new app effort been? Online user feedback is currently prohibited on the Apple app store, so we can gauge user’s reactions only through their earlier comments, before feedback was turned off. “Good, good, good,” one reviewer wrote. “Whatever you want me to say.” “We voluntarily downloaded this,” wrote another reviewer, who gave the app one star. “Truly.”

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