HONG KONG—Western businessmen who journeyed to the People’s Republic of China in the 1980s noted that no matter how poor someone was, no matter where they were in the country, they still had access to a radio, perhaps even a television. That way they could tune in to the Chinese Communist Party’s broadcasts—or the party cadres might do it for them.
Nowadays, media programming is still largely dictated by the party, but the messaging is subtler and slicker. From party-sponsored rap groups to propaganda videos that feature foreigners from all corners of the world, the CCP’s flacks have more instruments in their toolboxes than ever before.
Whereas the Great Helmsman, Mao Zedong, relied heavily on propaganda art to establish his image as a key activist, scholar, chief of the military, and party leader, today Xi Jinping’s cult of personality is readily accepted by the public, with that reception made easy because all we need to do is tap on the latest shared post on WeChat, China’s most popular social media platform. But that’s only a small part of the picture.
Westerners may worry about Facebook or Google sharing their incredibly intimate knowledge of users’ lives and tastes with sinister government agencies, but in China the party and the State have, as it were, their own direct lines into your thoughts.
During the just-ended 19th Party Congress in Beijing, where major policy announcements were made and Xi emerged with his power more obviously absolute than ever, quasi-independent Chinese tech firm Tencent released a phone-based game for its 1 billion WeChat users. They were were given the chance to listen to snippets of Xi’s speech to the party’s delegates, and then “clap” by mashing an “applaud” button as quickly as possible for 19 seconds. Within a day, the game racked up over 800 million “claps.”
There were plenty of reasons for Tencent to do this. China’s tech sector is under severe scrutiny, as lawmakers attempt to regain as much control as possible in a field where bureaucracy kills innovation. Making good with the party, such as luring WeChat users to “applaud” the Chinese president even if they ignored the live broadcast of proceedings, might just help the company navigate new restrictions down the road.
Tencent’s founder and chairman, Ma Huateng, also known as Pony Ma, is reportedly Asia’s richest individual. Maintaining that status means keeping Beijing happy.
So Tencent placed the CCP in everyone’s pocket, within everyone’s earshot, within everyone’s sight.
The CCP has also produced its own apps for “party construction”—a fundamental tenet that weaves the organization into the fabric of Chinese society.
With dozens of apps to download—all with icons in red, gold, or white; most featuring the hammer and sickle; nearly all containing the Chinese character for “party”—Xi’s CCP is going virtual and viral to ensure that the Chinese president’s ideas “enter the brain and the heart” of the nation’s citizens, as a report published on June 29 in the Science and Technology Daily put it (link in Chinese).
The same article cites the case of Intelligence Red Cloud, which the CCP uses as an indoctrination app, spreading its ideas. The key here is not so much about the dissemination of information, but that the party has convinced many Chinese citizens to invite it into the devices that hold much of their personal imprints, from the contact information of acquaintances, friends, and family members, to correspondence that is meant to be private. And if one wants to move up the CCP’s ladder, first becoming a member and then taking on responsibilities within local chapters, which may in turn secure better career prospects in China’s many state-owned enterprises, there is little choice other than to tap “download” for the party’s red apps.
As nefarious as the Great Firewall might be as it blocks many foreign websites, it is architecture such as Intelligence Red Cloud that is truly dystopian as every action taken on a smartphone is absorbed into a data set and gauged in order to determine the views of a party member.
One might ask: Is it possible to trust evaluations made by software that might be flawed?
The CCP is unburdened by such concerns. Already, Intelligence Red Cloud has been downloaded 2 million times, and forms the basic architecture for other spinoff apps. Even some of the party’s training facilities now use it to evaluate their students.
The words of Xi may not be considered sacrosanct by most of China’s population, but his ideas are now part of everyday consumption, even in entertainment such as Tencent’s applause game.
In The New Yorker recently, there were claims that Xi Jinping “plays the emperor.” But that line of thinking is reductive and paves over what the Chinese president means to the country and its people.
Although he is a dictator—under one-party rule, there is no other word for it—Xi demands obedience, not worship. He is returning China to a state that reflects the historical norm, with the Middle Kingdom being the major political and economic powerhouse in East Asia, its influence impacting neighboring states.
Within a three-and-a-half-hour work report given at the 19th Party Congress (if giving a speech of that length was a ploy to make journalists leave the auditorium, it was highly effective) and with the constant use of dry officialese, Xi laid out plans to cement his legacy and mold the CCP according to his philosophies of governance, including reassurances that China would be bolder on the world stage, even flirting with the idea of exporting the party’s mode of governance to other countries. Ideas like these play incredibly well domestically, especially in sound-bite form and delivered via apps.
In terms of authoritarian rule, the Chinese Communist Party under Xi has found its sweet spot. What the West sees as social ills or limitations in civilian life are written off as mere inconveniences.
When folks in China look abroad, they see inconsistency and unpredictability in, say, American governance, where basic services such as health care and higher education seem like luxuries—the exact opposite of Xi’s doctrine.
Stateside, Xi has received praise from an unexpected corner: America’s chief spy, Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo, has said, “We think that President Xi will come out of this [Party Congress] in a dominant position with incredible capacity to do good around the world.”
So even though apps (and other forms of propaganda) created by the CCP might push dubious narratives of foiled coups, those tales are swallowed because they aren’t quite unpalatable enough, or even make for great fodder in the cottage industry of speculation of the party’s inner workings.
In any case, the result is that Xi’s image is bolstered. He’s leading China to greatness never seen before, or so everyone says.