The most downloaded app in Apple Store’s China region, with over 100 million users, awards points for reading articles, taking quizzes, learning about socialist theory and watching videos about President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party. The app, Study the Great Nation, was developed by the public opinion research division of China’s Central Propaganda Department and tech company Alibaba, and it’s being likened to Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book.
The app isn’t simply compared to that famous work of propaganda — one viewed by many as a tool for survival during China’s Cultural Revolution in the 60s and 70s — because of its wide distribution in the nation, but in the pressure that the Party is putting on its people to engage with its content.
Users can get points by simply logging in and reading articles, but to really collect a meaningful (read: acceptable by the Party’s terms) score, it requires a concerted effort (or cheating). And it also requires you to stifle any criticism you might have about the app or the government.
A journalist who reviewed the app said that when she was prompted to leave a comment about how she felt about the experience, it said that “only valid points of view will be awarded points” and “good comments will be prioritised for display.”
“We must love our country,” 35-year-old army veteran Jiang Shuiqiu told the New York Times. He is reportedly a top scorer in Changsha. “We are getting stronger and stronger.”
According to reports, schools, businesses, and government offices are all using the app’s point system as a way to, at best, incentivise people and, at worse, punish them. But the examples illustrated in reports indicate how the app is used as a tool for ideological intimidation—employees at companies are ranked by their usage of the app and some employers reportedly force their staff to send them screenshots of their scores, every day.
“We were told we had to score at least 30 points a day,” a government employee in southern China told the South China Morning Post. “I can make that score just by leaving the phone open with the articles and videos turned on, though I have to adjust the settings to avoid a timeout.”
Two civil servants in Beijing also reported that they experienced little oversight from their superiors when it came to monitoring their usage on the app, but the New York Times reported that there are some government offices that host study sessions and make workers who aren’t maintaining acceptable scores write critical reports on themselves.
And the proliferation of the app isn’t simply a result of tyrannical superiors — people who rack up enough points can also reportedly use them to redeem discounts at some businesses or comped admission into some tourist spots.
It’s also unclear how a failure to adopt the Study the Great Nation app into a regular routine might affect an individual user who isn’t held accountable by their employer or motivated by a discount. According to the New York Times, China’s Propaganda Department maintains user data. This reportedly includes their name, photos, videos, and contacts.
Users can also text, call, and video chat with people within the app — it works with Alibaba’s messaging app DingTalk — meaning the nation’s party has access to some potentially intimate and revealing data.
“You cannot divert attention away from it,” Haiqing Yu, a professor who studies Chinese media at RMIT University in Australia, told the New York Times. “It’s a kind of digital surveillance. It brings the digital dictatorship to a new level.”