In China, an app about President Xi Jinping is literally becoming impossible to ignore

Mr Jiang Shuiqiu, who runs a fishing store in the city of Changsha, in Hunan province, using the Study The Great Nation app.
Mr Jiang Shuiqiu, who runs a fishing store in the city of Changsha, in Hunan province, using the Study The Great Nation app.PHOTO: NYTIMES

CHANGSHA, CHINA (NYTIMES) - Inside a fishing gear store on a busy city street, the owner sits behind a counter, furiously tapping a smartphone to improve his score on an app that has nothing to do with rods, reels and bait.

The owner, Mr Jiang Shuiqiu, a 35-year-old army veteran, has a different obsession: earning points on Study The Great Nation, a new app devoted to promoting Chinese President Xi Jinping and the ruling Communist Party - a kind of high-tech equivalent of Mao Zedong's Little Red Book. Mr Jiang spends several hours daily on the app, checking news about Mr Xi and brushing up on socialist theories.

Tens of millions of Chinese workers, students and civil servants are using Study The Great Nation, often under pressure from the government. It is part of a sweeping effort by Mr Xi to strengthen ideological control in the digital age and reassert the party's primacy, as Mao once did, as the centre of Chinese life.

"We must love our country," said Mr Jiang, one of the top scorers on the app in Changsha, the capital of the southern province of Hunan. "We are getting stronger and stronger."

While many people have embraced the app as a form of patriotism, others see it as a burden imposed by overzealous officials and another sign of a growing personality cult around Mr Xi, perhaps China's most powerful leader since Mao's time.

"He is using new media to fortify loyalty towards him," said Mr Wu Qiang, a political analyst in Beijing. He likened Study The Great Nation to the little booklet of Mao quotations that was widely circulated during the chaotic and violent Cultural Revolution.

Since its debut this year, Study The Great Nation has become the most downloaded app on Apple's digital storefront in China, with the state news media saying it has more than 100 million registered users - a reach that would be the envy of any new app's creators.

 

But those numbers are driven largely by the party, which ordered thousands of officials across China to ensure that the app penetrates the daily routines of as many citizens as possible, whether they like it.

Schools are shaming students with low app scores. Government offices are holding study sessions and forcing workers who fall behind to write reports criticising themselves. Private companies, hoping to curry favour with party officials, are ranking employees based on their use of the app and awarding top performers the title of "star learner". Many employers now require workers to submit daily screenshots documenting how many points they have earned.

Propaganda is ubiquitous in China, but experts say Study The Great Nation is different because the government is forcing people to use it and punishing those who cheat or fall behind.

The app allows users to earn points for staying on top of news about Mr Xi. Watching a video about his recent visit to France, for example, earns one point. Getting a perfect score on a quiz about his economic policies earns 10.

The app comes as Mr Xi, who rose to power in 2012, is leading a broader crackdown on free speech in China, imprisoning scores of activists, lawyers and intellectuals, and imposing new restrictions on the news media. Mr Xi has spoken frequently about what he calls the need to guard against online threats. He has warned that the party could lose its grip on power if it does not master digital media.

"There is no national security without Internet security," Mr Xi said in a speech this year. "If we cannot succeed on the Internet, we will not be able to maintain power in the long run."

Mr David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project, said the app was a way for Mr Xi to ensure that Chinese families are invested in the life of the party at a time when many dismiss propaganda as stilted and irrelevant.

"Loyalty to the party," Mr Bandurski said, "means loyalty to Xi Jinping."

Study The Great Nation in some ways harkens back to the Mao era, when the chairman's portrait hung in living rooms and families studied his words feverishly. While Mr Xi cannot yet match Mao's grandeur, he has borrowed from Mao's playbook in his quest to be seen as a singular, transformative force.

The app features a television series called Xi Time and Mr Xi's quotations on topics such as building a strong military and achieving a "Chinese dream" of prosperity and strength. The app recommends stories about Mr Xi on its home screen and sends push notifications highlighting "golden sentences" from his latest speeches. Even the Chinese name for the app is a play on Mr Xi's name.

The app, which also offers lighter fare about traditional Chinese culture, history and geography, presents a censored version of current events. Topics such as China's mass detention of Muslims are not included.

At Hulunbuir University in northern China, school officials monitor the scores of more than 1,100 teachers and students who use the app as part of the school's efforts to spread Mr Xi's ideas, known in China as Xi Jinping Thought.

"Everyone studies voluntarily and has very high scores," said Ms Bai Mei, an ideology instructor at the university.

But not everyone is as enthusiastic. In interviews, students and workers complained that superiors publicly chastised them for low scores. Others said bosses threatened to deduct pay or withhold bonuses if they did not use the app more frequently. They did not want to provide their names for fear of punishment, but some have complained online.

"What kind of phenomenon is this?" one user wrote on Weibo, a popular social media site, complaining of a salary deduction. "My God, what has happened to the party now?"

Critics say Mr Xi is intruding into the private lives of Chinese citizens in a way the party has typically avoided since the Mao era. The app makes the party's messages difficult to ignore, awarding points only when an article has been read completely and a video has been watched for at least three minutes.

"You cannot divert attention away from it," said Dr Haiqing Yu, who researches on Chinese media at RMIT University in Australia. "It's a kind of digital surveillance. It brings the digital dictatorship to a new level."

The app, which was developed by the party's Propaganda Department and technology giant Alibaba, is available on Apple's App Store as well as the Android app store in China. The Propaganda Department keeps user data.

 
 

It is unclear how closely the government tracks users of Study The Great Nation, but the app requires people to provide a mobile number to register and a national identification number to access video-conference and chat features.

The Propaganda Department declined to comment, as did Alibaba, which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Given the pressures to use the app, a cheating industry involving at least a dozen products has flourished. A man who listed his contact information in an online advertisement for cheating software said in an interview that many of his more than 1,000 customers saw the app as a burden imposed by bosses. He declined to provide his name for fear of retribution.

The government has moved swiftly to prosecute cheating and limit criticism of the app. Police in the south-eastern province of Jiangxi last month detained a man who sold cheating software for about US$13 (S$17.60). Police said the man was running an illegal business.

The state-run news media teems with glowing reviews of the app, including stories about diligent hospital workers and kindergarten teachers who open Study The Great Nation as soon as they awaken, even before they drink water or go to the bathroom.

The app has inspired videos by prison guards, raps by children and adulatory song-and-dance routines by power plant workers. Some party members have suggested the app can be used as a dating tool to screen potential mates ("If you see a guy on the subway using the app," says one cartoon, "you should marry him.").

In Changsha, which coincidentally is an hour's drive from Mao's childhood home, the local news media has lauded Mr Jiang, the owner of the fishing gear store, for his high scores. He and his wife sometimes answer questions on the app together at dinner, alongside their nine-year-old son.

Mr Jiang said his military training had inspired him to devote himself fully to Study The Great Nation. By using the app, he said, he has grown even more patriotic.

"President Xi has a dream of great renaissance," he said. "When young people are strong, the nation is strong."