by Markus Pohlmann
Learning from socialism means learning to win. Learning Xi Jingping means winning as well. That is why many people in China now have to serve hours of detention. At first only the party members, the civil servants and the press. However, in the near future this will probably affect almost everyone. They do not have to go to school or to party offices to do this, but, as long as they are connected to the internet, anywhere and anytime. Those who regard the smartphone as both a blessing and a curse because they simply cannot put it down, now have a legitimate ground: they are no longer allowed by the state to keep their hands off it. At least not for a long time. Chinese socialism in particular does not leave its citizens alone. Ongoing re-education and total social control of the citizens also characterize other socialist dictatorships, but Chinese socialism takes it to the extreme. The “playful” app is indeed a modern form of putting someone to “The Question”, a means of everyday torture.
Of course, everything starts out playfully: “gamification” strikes everywhere, even in China. There are films, documentaries, MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) and quizzes in the app, but then there are also party guidelines, speeches by Xi Jinping, a lot of knowledge about the party and the state. Installing the app on a private smartphone is mandatory for party members and strongly encouraged for all state employees. Since the beginning of October, Chinese journalists from 14 state media organizations in Beijing have had to master a test on President Xi’s ideology in the app in order to obtain a press card.
Xue Xi Qiang Guo, the app´s name, made it to the top of the list of most downloaded apps in China, even surpassing the Chinese version of TikTok, currently popular among teenagers. The new “Dictator App” was only launched on 01.01.2019 and already had 100 million registered users by the beginning of April. Its use is promoted and controlled by the communist party committees, which exist in every state organization and in many private companies. When registering, users are grouped according to their affiliation by the party committees at various levels.
To create an account, you need to enter your full name, your private cell phone number and to which party cell you belong. For each group there is an administrator who – authorized by the party committee – checks the activity level of the group members in the app and reports back to the party committee. The numerous groups are structured along the government structure from the central government down to the village level. This allows upper-level administrators to check and document the level of activity from the lower level.
The name of the app means “learning strengthens the nation”, or “learning how to strengthen the nation” or, more importantly, “learning from Xi (Jingping) – ideology strengthens the nation”. Behind the name stands the most powerful public relations institution in China – the Ministry of Public Affairs of the Communist Party. It is responsible for socialist ideology and censorship in China and the provider of the app “Xue Xi Qiang Guo”. In the “Xue Xi Qiang Guo” only positive news and neutral expertise are published. From the point of view of the party, negative information or events, such as scandals, protests, or the trade war between China and the U.S., are not included in this app. In this app China and Xi Jingping are at the top, and the app itself is at the top in China.
The level of activity of each individual, their team, party cell, department and organization is assessed daily in a points system. The scoring system is as follows:
Control is very tight. For example, in the Liujing municipality of the city of Nanning in Guangxi Province, the app was already in widespread use in February, so the number of new users, the activity levels and the average points of each group (party cell) were reported and made public daily at 9 o’clock (see table below for an example of this naming and shaming practice). The heads of the last three groups (party cell) in the ranking were scolded by their superiors. Now, numerous organizations in China require their employees to collect at least 30 points per day. The activity levels directly determine the performance components of the salary of each civil servant and the budget of each organization. According to the communist party, “Did you learn today?” should become the new greeting in China.
This hardly subtle, albeit modern, pressure on ideological mainstreaming in China, on socialist education and indoctrination of civil servants and citizens goes not only hand in hand with total social control. According to the analysis of the Berlin IT firm “Cure53”, it also offers a great potential to spy on the users of the app.
“In a nutshell, judging by the research outputs and results of an in-depth analysis, the Cure53 team finds it evident and undeniable that the examined application is capable of collecting and managing vast amounts of very specific data. It is certain that the gathered material can become a basis for further actions concerning a specific group (or groups) of citizens”(Cure53: 17). The application contains a hidden code that is equivalent to a backdoor with full root access. This allows you to execute all kinds of commands, such as installing any software or modifying existing files. Keyloggers, a tool that allows the interception of passwords and account numbers from the keystrokes on a device, could also be used to record entered texts.
Even if the app has become unavoidable for many, the incentives to circumvent this “duty” to socialist self-optimization are many. Online, for example, there are many tips for keeping socialist self-optimization within limits. E.g. “how to get 40 points in 5 minutes”, “video while cooking or showering.” One of the civil servants even developed a software to get you points automatically without learning. But he was arrested and the users were warned not to use this tactics anymore.
The use is now also promoted and expected from people who are not party members or civil servants. The students, the pupils, the parents of the pupils and also the workers in factories are the new target groups. The government wants to influence them more and more with “positive energy” to build even more “self-confidence in Chinese culture” (Xi, Jinping).
The idea that all the digital surveillance, control and indoctrination activities in China are merely a more efficient, digitally-supported form of administration, will be rendered absurd by this app. Basically, the old Leninist idea remains that the right political mindset can only be taught to the worker externally, through the vanguard of the party and its cadres.
But whether the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party can be safeguarded by such a digitized dictatorship seems very questionable from the outside. The forced 30 points appear in a sociological view as a legitimatory zero option. For it is clear that the activities forced by the app cannot reflect the interests of the users at all. The new “Dictator App” is merely a demonstration of the sovereignty and power of the ruling party, and its fragility. The fact that the Chinese Communist Party apparently considers this necessary draws attention to the great uncertainty and mistrust of socialist-educated civil servants and citizens. In any case, the new “Dictator App” is a tragic and instructive large-scale social experiment, the outcome of which will certainly surprise us.
Huang, Zheping (2019), China’s most popular app is a propaganda tool teaching Xi Jinping Though.
Li, Shan; Wen, Philip (2019), This App Helps You Learn About China, While China Learns All About You.