Xuexi qiangguo: The digitalization of Chinese propaganda

Read Time:6 Minute, 24 Second

By Sydney Tucker

NANJING, China — Historically, China has been a nation filled with propaganda. On almost every city block, one can find the 12 guiding principles of Chinese socialism, including freedom, equality, democracy, harmony and patriotism, plastered on a wall. These core values remind Chinese citizens of the foundational building blocks that guide their country, though many of these ideals have yet to actually manifest in Chinese society. From billboards to subway ads, signs feature one-liners promoting socialist values. This method of promoting propaganda is considered traditional, harkening back to the Mao era when Party policy was painted or posted on walls for public consumption. But earlier this year, political propaganda reached new technological heights under the leadership of President Xi Jinping. 

Photo Credits: Amy Bodner

A list of the twelve guiding principles of Chinese socialism. From top to bottom, left to right, “Prosperity, Freedom, Patriotism, Democracy, Equality, Dedication, Civility, Justice, Honesty, Harmony, Rule of Law, Friendliness.” 

In January 2019, China’s Publicity Department launched the country’s first official government mobile app, Xuexi Qiangguo (学习强国), which roughly translates to “studying strengthens the nation.” Intended to help Communist Party members and average citizens gain a deeper understanding of China’s political goals, the app aims to demonstrate the path that Xi wants China’s future development to take. 

Through the app, party members are encouraged to immerse themselves in Xi Jinping thought. According to the New York Times, “Xi Jinping thought” focuses on strengthening China’s three core bases: the nation, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Xi himself. The emphasis on the Communist Party has proven to be the most important. Xi frequently emphasizes that the party is responsible for China’s successes, but not for its problems. Xi’s plan is to take steps he believes will allow the country to become not only an economic heavyweight, but a well-respected political power as well. As China continues to grow and strengthen, the central government wishes to see all of its citizens united under the same political ideology. The Chinese government believes that the single-party system is the driving force for the country’s path to global superiority and hopes the app will promote this belief.

Screen Shot 2019-05-07 at 11.01.41 PM.png
Screen Shot 2019-05-07 at 11.07.41 PM.png
Xuexi Qiangguo’s registration and login screen 
Credits: http://www.jnnews.tv/p/683470.html

At its core, the sometimes game-like app is designed to award points to users for engaging in pro-China propaganda. Upon registering for the app, users must enter their telephone number, full name and place of employment, and agree to its terms of use. Completing this step earns the user a tenth of a point. Thirty-eight channels are available to “enhance” the learning experience, covering topics such as politics, news, party history, law, new political thought and the ideologies of current and previous Chinese leaders, as well as less political topics including science, technology and traditional Chinese culture. Despite the variety of its content, the app heavily emphasizes politics and reinforces traditional study methods such as extensive reading and rote memorization. The app also includes forms of audiovisual learning through documentaries, news broadcast clips and online courses.

Under the point system, users’ efforts don’t go unrewarded. Wishing to remain unnamed, a Hopkins-Nanjing Center (HNC) professor detailed the ways in which a user can earn points. Tasks including reading,commenting on an article, watching a video or completing a quiz each earn a user one point. Users can even view the scores of their friends, fellow party members, classmates and coworkers to compete for the week’s high score. A running joke among Nanjing University students claims that the higher one’s score, the better spouse or partner one can be. 

Xuexi Qiangguo has quickly risen to the top of app store charts, with over 100 million downloads within four months of its launch date. Notably, downloads of the app briefly surpassed those of WeChat, China’s most popular messaging, social media and mobile payment app, rendering Xuexi Qiangguo the most downloaded app in China’s Apple store.

Xuexi Qiangguo holds the top spot for most downloads in China’s version of the Apple store
Photo Credits: South China Morning Post,  https://www.scmp.com/tech/apps-social/article/2186037/chinas-most-popular-app-propaganda-tool-teaching-xi-jinping-thought

However, these numbers do not clarify whether the Chinese citizenry are genuinely interested in learning Xi Jinping thought—or if they feel they must do so in order to demonstrate party loyalty.

Culturally, Xuexi Qiangguo is something China has never seen before as perhaps the only app to have made the unprecedented jump out of pop culture and into politics. The Chinese government has harnessed China’s increasing technological sophistication and growing population of Internet users to spread its political influence. So far, the greatest influence has been on younger generations, especially college students.

A CCP-affiliated student at the HNC, who chose to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the subject, described the app as “politics made fun,” and believes the app will have a larger impact on students as a whole than the current and well-established method of political indoctrination—mandatory classes on Marxist theory for every undergraduate student. They added that “when I attend my Marxist class, I often focus on everything else but what the teacher is saying. Whether shopping online via Taobao or working on an assignment for another class, I am not emotionally invested in this class because it is required of all Chinese students.” The student believes this app is a creative and effective way to promote understanding of the Party’s political goals.

While competition among friends and colleagues to earn points within the app may be just for fun, users of Weibo, a popular Chinese app similar to Twitter, have expressed concern. Many claim the app intensifies political pressure on party members to prove their political loyalties in a quantifiable way by measuring users’ interest in Xi Jinping thought and the CCP. The HNC student interviewed for comment recalls how a teacher questioned students about news published on the app that very morning, impressed with those who could respond and disappointed in the ones who could not. Similarly, a hospital employee posted online about having to report her score at her workplace on a weekly basis. 

When does voluntary use begin to feel forced? Westerners looking in may view the app as hypocritical, relying on fear of political reprimand to encourage its use, directly contradicting self-proclaimed Chinese socialist values such as freedom and democracy. Forced political conformity works to characterize Xi as a feared leader, rather than a respected one. 

It is too early to determine the future of Xuexi Qiangguo and its influence within Chinese society. However, it is clear that Xuexi Qiangguo hopes to be the future of China’s propaganda machine and wield influence over how citizens view the government. While the app is spun as a positive step to enhance political unity it is important for observers to err on the side of caution. Importantly, this app has raised several questions of concern for Chinese citizens. Are users expected to fall in line with Xi Jinping thought? What are the consequences if they disagree with these ideals? 

Looking toward the anticipated implementation of China’s social credit score system in coming years, it may be only a matter of time before one’s score on Xuexi Qiangguo or similar apps will directly correlate with his or her social standing. If utilized effectively, the app could be used to bend the thoughts of the next generation toward the Communist Party line. 

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