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Gamifying Propaganda: Everything You Need to Know about China’s ‘Study Xi’ App

Scoring points by doing Xi-focused quizzes and watching ‘Xi Time’ news: this app takes propaganda to a whole other level.

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A new app that encourages China’s online population to study Xi Jinping Thought has made headlines, both in and outside of China. Here’s everything you need to know about this new interactive propaganda tool. An overview by What’s on Weibo.

On January 1st, the Xué Xí Qiáng Guó app was launched on various Chinese app stores. The app is an initiative by the Propaganda Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, and is linked to the xuexi.cn platform, which was first set up in 2018.

The app has been making headlines in Chinese and English-language media this week. The BBC referred to the app as a “little red book,” and reported that members of the ruling Communist Party, as well as state-owned company employees who are not Party members, have allegedly been required to download and use it on a daily basis (Feb 15).

The Guardian reported that government officials in Fujian province and Qingdao city held workshops last month stressing the political importance of the app, and directing local leaders to promote the app across government departments (Feb 15).

Although some reports claim that the app is making its way to top lists of most downloaded apps in China, it only scored a position 72 in the top 100 list of popular Chinese app store 360app at time of writing. The app store does state that the app has been downloaded 340000 times, with app users rating it with 2,5 stars out of 5. In the Tencent store, the app was downloaded 2,1 million times.

However, these numbers do not necessarily indicate much about the total number of downloads, since the app can be directly downloaded as an APK file from various locations. In the Chinese Apple store, the app is now the number one scoring app in the educational category. The app is only available in Chinese, and is not available from the Google Play store or Apple stores outside of China.

The app’s name (学习强国) is translated as the ‘Study Xi Strong Country’ app in various English-language media reports, but a more suitable translation would perhaps be ‘Study Xi, Strengthen China.’1 There’s a wordplay in the name, since the Mandarin word for ‘studying’ is ‘xuéxí’ which also incorporates the name of Xi, and in this context means both ‘Studying’ as well as ‘Study Xi.’

The main slogan of the ‘Study Xi’ app is one of Xi’s own sayings: “Dreams start with studying, careers start from doing” (“梦想从学习开始,事业从实践起步”, loose translation). Both the idea of ‘Dreams’ and of ‘Studying’ are concepts that are consistently promoted in the Xi era, with the idea that the common dream of the people is the ‘Chinese Dream’ of bringing about the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Within this Chinese dream, studying is generally promoted as a “secret weapon” that will strengthen the Party and the nation (Xiao 2016).

 

A Multi-Functional Propaganda Tool

 

So what is the ‘Study Xi, Strengthen China’ app? It basically is a multi-functional educational platform that offers users various ways to study Xi Jinping Thought, Party history, Chinese culture, history, and much more. Once people are registered on the app, they can also access the platform via PC.

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.

We’ve listed some of the app’s functions below. It is much more than a media app alone; it also has a social function, that allows users to connect with friends, message them, call them, and even send them ‘red envelopes’ (money presents).


The ‘red envelope’ function is made possible through Alipay, the online payment platform that is owned by Ant Financial Services Group, an affiliate company of the Chinese Alibaba Group.

One way for users to verify their identity on the app is also by linking it to their Alipay account. Various media reports also claim that the app is linked to Alibaba’s Ding Ding platform, an enterprise chat app that has a multitude of functions, many of which are also incorparated in the ‘Study Xi’ app (for more about Ding Ding, see our article here).

Given the cooperation with Alibaba, it is perhaps not surprising that upon registering for the app with just my phone number, it already knew my nickname without me putting it in. The app also listed an old smartphone I used some two years ago as a “frequently used” device, although I had just downloaded the app the day before and had never registered for it before.

Twitter user @yanshitou12 also noted that, upon using a friend’s number to register for the app, her Ding Ding conversations were automatically loaded into the chat history, suggesting that Alibaba’s Ding Ding is indeed fully integrated with the app.

Like Ding Ding, the ‘Study Xi’ app also allows users to set up conference calls, send ‘self-deleting’ chats (like Snapchat), and use the app’s calendar function. Its many practical functions make this an app that is especially convenient for China’s 89,5 million Party members to stay close to the Party and its activities.

 

How to Score with Xi

 

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.

One Weibo user shared that she had just received her Modern Chinese Dictionary by mail through the app’s ‘gift shop,’ another person expressed her surprise that a delivery man came to deliver her prize at her door. “Thank you, Propaganda Department!”, she wrote.

The score system works as follows:

  • Upon registering for the app, you receive 1 point.
  • For every article or essay one reads, you get 1 point (one per article, does not work with articles that have already been viewed before).
  • For every video you watch you get 1 point (the same video won’t be credited with an extra point if you see it twice).
  • The time you spend on the app is also rewarded with points: for every 4 minutes of reading, you get 1 point (max 8 points per day).
  • For every 5 minutes of watching a video, you get 1 point (max 8 points per day).
  • You get 1 point for “subscribing” to a media account, which will then show up in your news feed.
  • If you share two articles with friends, you get 1 point.
  • You get 1 point for every two articles or essays you ‘save’ within the app.
  • If you score 100% on a quiz, you get 10 points.

What is quite remarkable about the app, is that it encourages users to ‘Study Xi’ at particular times of the day. The morning 6:00-8:30 timeframe, along with the 12:00-14:00 slot and evening 20:00-22:30 times, are designated as so-called “active time slots” during which users can score double points for their activities. Within these time slots, reading an article would, for example, grant a user 2 points instead of 1.

This signals that, in line with good working morale, people are supposed to look into the app during their morning commute, their lunch break, and before bedtime, and are indirectly discouraged from using it during (office) working hours.

The points that are scored on the app will be valid for two years.

On Weibo, some netizens are quite serious about the ‘gaming’ aspect of this app, and have already found ways to cheat the system. They share tips and tricks on how to score within the app: points are credited within 10 seconds of clicking an article, for example, and watching videos can be easily rewarded with a point if one immediately scrolls to the end.

Through the PC version of the app, it is easy to let certain videos play while scrolling the internet, basically earning points without actually watching the videos.

“Thanks,” many commenters reply to these cheating tricks: “Just what I was looking for.” “I already received 50 points in one day!”

 

A Library in Your Pocket: Media, Books, Movies

 

The ‘Study Xi’ app focuses on some dozen media outlets that users can subscribe to and which also show up in the ‘recommended’ homepage feed.

Incorporated in the app are state media outlets China Daily (中国日报网), People’s Daily (人民网), Xinhua (新华), Qiushi Journal (求是网), China Military Web (中国军网), Economic Daily (经济日报), and others.

The app also incorporates local ‘Study Xi’ platforms, from Hubei to Jiangxi, from Shandong to Fujian.

Besides these media, the app also has TV channels people can watch videos on, from CCTV News to a special ‘Xi Time’ news programme, to various TV dramas, including Turbulence of the Mu Clan (木府风云) and Romance of Our Parents (父母爱情).

“Xi Time” news clips focus on the activities of Xi Jinping.

There is also a movie section within the app, where users can watch classics such as The Long March (长征), The Founding Ceremony of the Nation (开国大典), films on Deng Xiaoping or Zhou Enlai, and various movies that focus on the Second Sino-Japanese War.

The ‘Study Xi’ library section grants users access to dozens of books. On the desktop version, the library is shown as an actual office, where you can click on the books that are displayed on the shelves and read them.

Some books are those by Xi Jinping, including The Governance of China (习近平谈治国理政), but there are also books by the famous Chinese author Lu Xun, or the 20th-century classic Rickshaw Boy by Lao She, and various works on calligraphy and poetry.

There is also an entire section of books available from a whole range of topics varying from astronomy to maths, biology, and geography. The books are available for online reading in pdf.

In general, you could say that the selection of media, videos, and books all fall into the categories of Chinese traditional culture and canonical literature, historical themes, science and technology, and the political themes of Party ideology and the Xi Jinping Thought that focuses on ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ (中国特色社会主义).

Those who read enough state media and Party articles will easily be able to do the quizzes and weekly questions in the app. Besides the standard ideological questions, it also draws from popular culture; I came across a question that used a trailer of China’s latest sci-fi movie The Wandering Earth that needed to be watched in order to complete the question.

 

Propaganda in the Xi Era

 

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.

On Weibo, there are some commenters who are sharing their 1000-point status on the app, or who say they enjoy looking into the app right before sleeping.

Dozens of commenters indicate that they have to assist their parents in using the app, or that it is not them, but their parents who are ‘hooked’ on the app – the majority of Weibo users are in the 20-35 years age group.

There are local trainings on making (older) Party members more familiar with the app, how to download it and how to use it. A local Chongqing community Weibo account recently posted the pictures below of their ‘Study Xi’ gathering.

On social media, some commenters complain about the fact that the Chinese Apple store has turned off the review comment sections on the app, despite the fact that it allegedly scored a number one spot in its “educational app” section.

Then there are also dozens of commenters who say they often use the app: the score matters to them. In a time when everything is mobile, and online gaming is booming, it seems that ‘Study Xi, Strengthen China’ has made its app all the more relevant by adding the scoring element.

In doing so, the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party is continuing on the same route it has taken for the past couple of years, which shows a clear break with the propaganda machine before the Xi era.

Not only does the propaganda in the Xi era strengthen the idea of Xi as a political idol, it also fully embraces the Internet, the online media environment, and its related pop culture in doing so (also see Chang & Ren 2018).

Since 2017, various noteworthy propaganda moments, such as the 2017 Xi Clapping Game, the cartoonification of Xi, or the One Belt, One Road media publicity hype, all point in the same direction, namely that the Party propaganda will use the modes of communication and technology that are most popular among China’s (younger) online population to reach their audiences.

For now, I am still stuck below 50 points on the ‘Study Xi’ app. The scoring element is powerful: I feel triggered to get my score up. Maybe watch a few more videos, do better on the quiz, and read some more state media articles. I might just be tempted to go back for some more Xi-studies.

By Manya Koetse

1Translation suggested by Helen Wang @helanwanglondon.

References

Chang, J., & Ren, H. 2018. “The powerful image and the imagination of power: the ‘new visual turn’ of the CPC’s propaganda strategy since its 18th National Congress in 2012. Asian Journal of Communication, 28(1), 1–19.

Xiao Junhua 肖君华. 2016. “Dreams Start with Learning – Studying General Secretary Xi Jinping’s Important Discourse on Learning [梦想从学习开始——学习习近平总书记关于学习的重要论述]” Guangming Daily, via CPC News, 7 July http://theory.people.com.cn/n1/2016/0707/c376186-28531506.html [18.1.19].


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Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

China Insight

Noteworthy Weibo Moment: Qingdao Government Account Shows Support for LGBT Community

“The best official account post I’ve ever seen on Weibo.”

Wendy Huang

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Some netizens are moved to tears to see an official government account making a public statement in support of the gay community.

Just a day ahead of the 2019 International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia (May 17), a Qingdao government social media account has attracted the attention of Chinese netizens for showing support to the gay community.

On the night of May 15, the Information Office of Qingdao Municipal Government published the noteworthy post on its official Weibo account Qingdao Fabu (@青岛发布), which has over 3,8 million followers.

“In a world of equality, let all people turn away from homophobia” (“在平等世界里,让所有人不再恐同”), the post said, commenting on the recent trending news of a 15-year-old boy who came out as gay and posted a suicide note on his Weibo account.

The incident shows us the difficulty and hopelessness homosexual people are suffering. The world should be equal and free, and as the International Day Against Homophobia (#517不再恐同日#) is nearing, let’s call on the people around us to express our love of equality and kindness,” the post said.

Within a day after it was published, the Qingdao Fabu post was shared over 30,000 times and received more than 23,000 likes.

 

A Weibo Suicide Note


 

The Weibo user referred to by the Qingdao local government account had posted a lengthy letter on the night of May 14. Using an anonymous Weibo account (@用户7138253812), the author, identifying himself as a 15-year-old boy from Qingdao, came out as gay and shared his pain and grievances over the pressure he faced.

Because the boy wrote he wanted to “leave this world forever” and ended his post with a farewell, many people became worried about the boy’s mental state and whereabouts.

In the early morning of May 15, the official Weibo account of Qingdao Police (@青岛公安) posted an update, stating that the boy was found safe after running away from home.

Later that day, another post was published on the same anonymous account saying: “Thank you everyone, everything is fine.” The farewell note has since been deleted. See a full translation of the text below this article.

 

Qingdao Official Account Receives Praise


 

With its post supporting the young gay man and the LGBT community at large, the Qingdao Government official news account is receiving hundreds of comments praising them.

Besides their original post, the Qingdao government account also posted a total of nine different quotes relating to LGBT issues, including one from Taiwanese film director Ang Lee saying “There’s a Brokeback Mountain in everyone’s heart.”

Another one stresses the fact that homosexuality is not a mental illness, with yet another quote mentioning that the Netherlands became the first country in 2001 to legalize same-sex marriage.

The reposted quotes were originally published on the Weibo account of Sina Shandong (@新浪山东), the official Weibo account of Sina’s Shandong Province Branch.

As the Qingdao Weibo post is gaining more popularity on Weibo at time of writing, these are some of the popular comments below:

  • “This is so awesome for an Official Weibo account!”
  • “That an Official account would post this.. seeing this makes me tear up. I will always support equal rights.”
  •  “I’m crying, this was really sent out by an Official account.”
  • “This must be the best Official account post I’ve ever seen on Weibo.”
  • “Let’s give it up for Qingdao!”
  • “This means progress!”
  • “I’m not from Qingdao, but I will follow this account from now on. This [post] shows you have guts.”
  • “I feel proud to be from Qingdao.”
  • “I am so moved by your post. Thank you for your support. I hope your light will shine on all the people.”

Over the past few years, Chinese social media have seen many times when gay content was censored.

One important moment occurred in 2017, when the China Netcasting Services Association (CNSA, 中国网络视听节目服务协会) issued new criteria to strengthen regulations over online audio-visual content on Chinese platforms. One of the new regulations regarded the removal of online content that “displays homosexuality” (“展示同性恋等内容”), grouping homosexuality together with incest and sexual perversity as “abnormal sexual behavior.”

Although it is very noteworthy for an official government account to publish social media posts that strongly support the gay community, it is not the first time it has happened.

In July of 2017, the official account of the Communist Youth League of Fujian published a post that stated “Being gay is no disorder!” Many netizens at the time, like today, said the unexpected support moved them to tears.

Sometimes on Weibo, it’s the little posts about big matters that seem to matter the most – especially when they come from a government-run source.

 

Full Translation of Suicide Note


 

The suicide note in question has been deleted from Weibo, but The Beijing LGBT Center translated the text and posted it on its Facebook page.

Please note that the following translation is not a What’s on Weibo translation and that all credits for this translation go to the Beijing LGBT Center. Follow them on Facebook here:

I am from Qingdao and am a 15-year-old student from Laoshan No.8 Secondary School.

I am a homosexual. I never expected I would be able to utter this word.

Growing up a frail and meek boy, I am that ‘fem’ everyone is referring to. An easy target, bullied, assaulted, teased, abused, and shunned by classmates and teachers alike. This is how I grew up, and so did many other gay children. Naive as I was, I did not fight back or told anyone about my feelings. I was afraid, and am still afraid of this world. I acted strangely and they called me lunatic, but I know that was my only way to protect myself. After I tried in vain to fit in, I chose to close myself from this world, and this is how I lived my childhood.

By sheer luck, I had a short childhood. I started to realize what’s ‘strange’ with me in grade 5 or 6. I remember how I exulted when I first read about affirmative answers about gay on Zhihu (Chinese version of Quora). But I was soon overwhelmed by those derogatory, abusive, and hurtful answers. I cried the whole night and yet I put my mask back on the very next morning. What people saw as maturity in me was in fact avoidance and isolation.

Things got a little better in secondary school because I am a top student. There was less bullying but I reminded that fem guy teased and mocked at by everyone. Among the worst was my class teacher, Chen Feng. For two years he inflicted me with corporal punishments. Listening to him indoctrinating his banal views was pure suffering. I’ve got enough of his so-called masculinity values, his genders have their fixed roles, his homosexuals are modern perverts. Yet he is not alone among his peers and colleagues. I have had enough of my teachers’ cursing, smearing, ridiculing, and insulting anything related to gays. All their rubbish made me sick and isolated.

Gradually I become irritable and violent. I came out to my mother rather abruptly. Though she seemed to have acquiesced it, I was giving in to the pressure and thinking about ending everything. I have no idea what happened to me and I know choosing death is not courageous, but rather an act of cowardice. I chose to avoid my family and I knew my indifference and avoidance hurt them, especially my mom, the one person who loves me the most.

My father is a weak and arrogant scum and inflicted my mother her whole life. He broke down my door when I was most vulnerable and isolated and banged my head on the wall. At that moment, I only wished he could kill me. But he was stopped by my sister.

Just now, my so-called “family” once again stormed my room and hurled their most insulting curses at me. I realized that my mom might be the only person who can accept me in this world. Or maybe she was just pretending too.

This is not the first time I’ve thought about dying to end it all. Just a few days ago, I scaled high trying to leave all these sufferings. When I called my mom to hear her voice one last time, I hesitated, climbed down and wandered for miles away from home.

Now I have once again escaped from home with that scum’s phone in my hand. Yes, this account is my father’s. I want to tell the world what I’ve always wanted to say and to do. And then leave this world forever.

I understand living on might be the better choice. I could have a bright future and watch this world getting more open and inclusive. But I have had enough. I am sorry to have vented everything on here, and I am sorry to be so weak my entire life. I wanted to do something for this world but in reality, I can do nothing. I know, China will not have its own Stonewall; its people can put up with anything. I am losing control of emotion…

I apologize for my cowardice. To be honest, I am not innocent. But even if I had the courage to change the world, a stab in the back could have easily killed me. I have chosen to solve the radical question with the radical way.

I love you all, the kind and beautiful people of conscience, I trust you to make the world better. If there were a heaven, I will send my blessings…I wish my story will be a faint voice to your fight.”

Also read:
* Communist Youth League: “Being Gay is No Disorder!”
* Why the Gay Kisses in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Won’t Make It to Chinese Cinemas
* Weibo Administration: “We’re No Longer Targeting Gay Content”
* China’s Online Gay Revolution and Rainbow Warrior Geng Le

By Wendy Huang and Manya Koetse

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Zhejiang Movie Theatre Displays Blacklisted Individuals in Avengers Movie Preview

A special ‘trailer’ before the Avengers movie premiere showed the audience blacklisted individuals.

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A local movie theatre in the city of Lishui, Zhejiang province, showed a noteworthy ‘trailer’ before the Avengers: End Game premiere on April 24.

Chinese state tabloid Global Times reports that the sold-out premiere had a ‘surprise’ moment just before the movie was about to start: a short Public Service Announcement by the Liandu district court of Lishui displayed people who are currently on a ‘debt dodging black list.’

The short film also informed the cinema audience of potential consequences of being on a blacklist, including no traveling abroad, and no traveling by air or on high-speed trains.

According to Global Times, the local district court has registered a total of 5478 people on its blacklist since 2018.

The names and faces of more than 300 people on this list have reportedly been displayed on cinema screens, public LED screens, and on buildings. Allegedly 80 of them have since complied with court orders.

As part of China’s emerging Social Credit system project, there are public court-issued lists of ‘trust-breaking enforcement subjects’ (信被执行人名单), referring to people or companies who have failed to comply with court orders.

Individuals on the judgment defaulter blacklist system run by the court system, whose information is publicized, can risk having their photos and names displayed on local LED screens on courthouses or other buildings (Dai 2018, 26).

Blacklisted individuals on a Wuxi building (via Phoenix News).

Beyond that, they will face restrictions in various ways, from being denied bank credit to being restricted from staying in high-end hotels or traveling by air.

On Weibo, the Global Times post on the noteworthy cinema preview received over 4000 shares. The same news was also reported by CCTV and Phoenix News.

Some commenters joke about the Public Service Announcement, saying: “Blacklisters [can now say]: Mum! I was on TV! On a big IMAX screen! Together with the Avengers!”

Others leave comments in support of the measure, calling it “creative,” and saying: “This is good, we should implement this all across the country.”

“Blacklisters should be displayed on all kinds of platforms.”

“This is for people to lose on their social credit,” another commenter writes: “If you don’t want to ‘socially die’ then just fulfill your duties.”

But not everyone agrees. “People are buying a movie ticket to see their film,” one person says: “They suddenly get exposed to this kind of content that has nothing to do with them, what about their rights as a consumer?”

By Manya Koetse

References

Dai, Xin, Toward a Reputation State: The Social Credit System Project of China (June 10, 2018). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3193577 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3193577 [5.3.19].

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©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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What’s on Weibo provides social, cultural & historical insights into an ever-changing China. What’s on Weibo sheds light on China’s digital media landscape and brings the story behind the hashtag. This independent news site is managed by sinologist Manya Koetse. Contact info@whatsonweibo.com. ©2014-2018

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