Xi Study App Highlights Party Influence Over and Through Tech

Xi Study App Highlights Party Influence Over and Through Tech

Chinese tech companies’ ties with Party and state authorities are coming under increasingly close scrutiny as, in the recent words of the Center for a New American Security’s Ashley Feng, the lines between them are "dangerously blurred [by] Chinese domestic laws and administrative guidelines, as well as unspoken regulations and internal party committees." Faced with criminal charges against his company in the U.S. and a multi-front battle to defend its participation in 5G network development elsewhere, Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei has recently sought to defuse this kind of suspicion, reiterating denials that the telecom equipment provider has or would ever provide Chinese authorities with users’ private information or the means to access it. Ren has even claimed that “even if we were required by Chinese law, we would firmly reject that.”

On Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang took issue with critics’ assertions that any such legal requirement does exist, dismissing them as "wrong," "biased," "bullying," "hypocritical, immoral and unfair." The Star Vancouver’s Perrin Grauer reported on Monday that experts disagree with Geng’s claims, however:

“While these problems are not unique to Huawei or many other Chinese companies … there are ways in which they are expected to be — or have no option but to be — subject to party control and often mobilized to national priorities,” said Elsa B. Kania, adjunct senior fellow with the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

“It is a Chinese tech company operating within a system (in) which Xi Jinping has declared the party leads everything. And like any other Chinese company, Huawei is expected to have a party secretary and party committee who exercise some rather ambiguous position in terms of its leadership and management.”

[… ] The Foreign Ministry spokesperson’s objection […] came in response to Saturday assertions from U.S. Vice President Mike Pence at the Munich Security Conference that “Chinese law requires (Chinese telecom companies such as Huawei) to provide Beijing’s vast security apparatus with access to any data that touches their network or equipment.”

[…] Geng said laws adjacent to the intelligence legislation oblige China’s national security service to “protect the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and citizens, including data security and right to privacy.” To suggest the intelligence law could supersede these obligations, he said, is a “one-sided” view of a complex legal landscape. [Source]

China does have increasingly robust consumer privacy protections, as Samm Sacks and Lorand Laskai recently described at Slate. But their analysis contradicts Geng’s argument, highlighting "an acute disjuncture between privacy from commercial surveillance and privacy from government surveillance. […] Even as the Chinese government grows increasingly willing to scold tech companies for overstepping the bounds of reasonable data collection, it has indicated no willingness to curb its own surveillance capabilities for the sake of individual privacy." This is in keeping with Chinese authorities’ broader ideal of law empowering rather than constraining central power. (It may also be in line with the public’s main privacy concerns.)

Meanwhile, last week brought a defiant backlash on discussion platform Reddit against a $150 million investment in the company by WeChat operator Tencent. Although the danger of encroaching Chinese censorship may have been exaggerated in this case, the company has made several ostentatious displays of loyalty to the Party.

The close cooperation between Party and tech sector was demonstrated again this week when Reuters’ Pei Li and Cate Cadell, citing internal sources and job ads, reported that e-commerce giant Alibaba was the developer behind a viral app promoting Xi Jinping’s signature ideology. The app is part of a broader push to disseminate Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era following its enshrinement in the Party constitution in October 2017 and its national counterpart the following February.

"Xuexi Qiangguo", which literally translates as ‘Study to make China strong’ and is a play on the government propaganda theme of applying President Xi Jinping’s thoughts, overtook Tik Tok’s Chinese version Douyin and WeChat to become the county’s most popular app on Apple’s China app store last week.

[…] The app, which includes short videos, government news stories and quizzes, was created by an Alibaba team. A user of Alibaba’s own messaging app DingTalk can use their login credentials to log into Xuexi Qiangguo. Alibaba said the app was built using DingTalk’s software.

[…] Last month, Alibaba executive vice-chairman Joe Tsai slammed U.S. treatment of fellow Chinese tech firm Huawei Technologies as "extremely unfair", and sharply criticized what he called an attempt by the U.S. government to curb China’s rise via the trade war.

[…] "The upside for these firms is that their track record of cooperation can put them in a better position to obtain key licenses or opportunities," said Mark Natkin, managing director at Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting, adding these collaborations were Beijing’s way of maintaining control over private firms.

"The downside is they may get tapped to participate in projects which, on economic or PR considerations alone they might normally eschew, but which may be uncomfortable or unwise to refuse." [Source]

What’s On Weibo’s Manya Koetse presented an in-depth look at the app, including its integrations with Alibaba products, its public reception, and its position among broader efforts to produce propaganda targeted at younger Chinese.

An important part of the app is its news feed: its home page features “recommended” reads that all focus on Xi Jinping and the Party. Another major feature is its ‘quiz’ page: every week, there are different quizzes that users can do, relating to all sorts of things, from Party ideology to famous Chinese poems.

[…] The app’s most noteworthy and perhaps also most appealing feature is its scoring system, since it turns studying Party ideology and Xi Jinping Thought into a game.

Those who accumulate enough points can get an item from the app’s ‘prize shop.’ There are also contests which users can join to compete over a Huawei tablet or other items.

[…] So how popular is the app, really? If the headlines in Chinese and non-Chinese media are to be believed, the majority of Chinese internet users are getting hooked on the app. That picture is perhaps the rose-colored one the Party would like to envision, but judging from social media comments and app ratings, reactions have been somewhat lukewarm. [Source]

Chinese media have published stories of an elderly villager who bought his first smartphone or a young woman in Shandong who canceled blind dates in order to use the app. But the app’s apparent popularity did not arise organically: like last year’s record-breaking “Amazing China” documentary, it has benefited from heavy official promotion. (The film’s official backing was later sharply reversed.) Rita Liao noted this in an early report on “Xuexi Qiangguo” at TechCrunch at the start of February:

[…] Many early users are Party members or work in China’s giant state apparatus, who were told to install the app. Several users TechCrunch spoke to, including a public school principal, a director of a district party committee and a municipal government official, confirmed that everyone in their organizations must download the app and every now and then, users may get quizzed on relevant content.

Newspapers and social media posts also suggest local governments have mandated downloads among Party members and encouraged the general public to give it a try. Some take a step further to organize offline study sessions for the app. For some context, China had nearly 90 million Communist Party members by the end of 2017.

“I believe that most of the downloads were incentivized, probably only a very small portion was initiated by a real interest,” says Kristin Shi-Kupfer, director of the research area on public policy and society at MERICS, a German think tank specializing in China. “This app will probably drop out of the rankings of any app store soon.”

[…] The app also has a gamified loyalty program, which rewards users virtual points when they complete a task, such as daily sign-in. Because registrations are on a real-name basis, supervisors can check who in their organizations haven’t installed the app, ushering in a new kind of digital monitoring. [Source]

The New York Times’ Raymond Zhong reported sardonic references to the mandatory download campaign in early App Store reviews:

Ratings and reviews for Study the Great Nation are currently disabled in Apple’s app store. But App Annie, an analytics firm, has preserved 497 reviews that had been submitted to Apple’s store as of Tuesday.

They are not kind, by and large. Many are laced with dry sarcasm. The average rating is 2.7 stars out of five.

“Everybody is installing this app voluntarily,” wrote one reviewer who gave the app one star. “Nobody is forcing us.”

“This software is great,” another one-star review said. “I downloaded it completely voluntarily. I like to study.” [Source]

Mandatory and trackable use of the app has serious implications, as David Bandurski discussed at China Media Project:

The platform is interesting and significant not only for the nature of its content as reflective of a renewed push to enforce the dominance of the Party’s ideology and positions, and to consolidate the power of Xi Jinping around the developing notion of “Xi Jinping Thought,” but also for the way it reinvents the process of ideological dominance for the digital era.

This is most evident in the points system employed by the “Xi Study Strong Nation,” the way it is engineered to make demands, in actionable and measurable ways, on how Party members spend what might otherwise be considered their personal time.

[…] Consider how the “Xi Study Strong Nation” point system is engineered and you realise that the advancement of the platform is about the real and measurable engagement, and thereby domination, of the individual within the broader Party-led system.

[…] As with anything in China, there are possible workarounds, and these have already been the topic of some discussion on Chinese social media. In the Douban piece, the writer introduces a “plan” for their mother — potentially of utility to others — that includes a number of possible cheats by which the overtaxed users of the “Xi Study Strong Nation” app might earn points more efficiently. For example, by ensuring their mobile screens are timed to lock out only after at least 10 minutes of inactivity (meaning that it will not seem that they been inattentive while the app is open). But “Xi Study Strong Nation” illustrates and underscores, nevertheless — for even circumvention demands engagement — the potential of the smartphone as a tool through which authoritarian regimes can shape and reinforce dominance over the population. [Source]

Bandurski introduced the app as an example of “the Party finding new ways to reengineer its dominance over the realm of ideas in the face of dramatic changes to the media environment brought on by the digital revolution.” In an earlier post, Bandurski noted the Communist Youth League’s public trumpeting of its own recent efforts toward that end:

Beginning on February 5, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Youth League (CCYL) began running reviews on its official WeChat account of how the League, nicknamed “Tuan Tuan” (团团), engaged with audiences over the past year through various social media channels. The point of the reviews is apparently to highlight the work the CCYL has done to modernise propaganda and reach younger audiences with the messages of the leadership.

One example on the CCYL’s review of what it characterised as its “top” posts on Zhihu (知乎), a Chinese question-and-answer website similar to Quora, was a discussion about the CCYL’s opening of accounts on two popular video streaming sites, Kuaishou (快手) and Tik Tok (抖音). The question was phrased: “How should we view the Chinese Communist Youth League’s announcement that it will join Kuaishou and Tik Tok?” The answer: “When the Chinese Communist Youth League officially joined Kuaishou and Tik Tok on October 1, 2018, this received both attention and ridicule from internet users. Facing this situation, this team responded on Zhihu: ‘General Secretary Xi Jinping has said before that wherever the youth are, the league’s organisation and work must extend there, and so Tuan Tuan is coming for the sake of the youth!’”

[…] Such public acts of taking stock of the implementation of Party policies are common in the Chinese political system, as various offices and institutions strive to signal to the leadership that they are proactive. [Source]

At South China Morning Post, William Zheng highlighted the official WeChat account of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission as another example of youth-focused online propaganda:.

This lies at the heart of the party’s efforts to control the social media narrative and operated for three years under the nickname of Chang An Jian – or Sword of Long-lasting Security – complete with anime-style avatar, before disclosing its true identity in November.

The South China Morning Post understands that this new media operation is run by a small central team of fewer than 10 people, all of whom were born in the 1980s or 1990s.

[…] Unlike the traditional top-down structure of propaganda departments, the new media team had more editorial freedom “not necessarily following orders from the top”. When deciding what stories to promote, “the first consideration is can we reach people’s hearts?” the person said.

[…] The Post has seen an official document from the Political and Legal Affairs Commission in Siping, a city in Jilin province, in which Politburo member Guo Shengkun tells all Chinese police officers to subscribe to the new media accounts operated by the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, which he heads. [Source]


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