Written by Javier C. Hernández
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.
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 President Xi Jinping and the ruling Communist Party — a kind of high-tech equivalent of Mao’s Little Red Book. Jiang spends several hours daily on the app, checking news about 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 Xi to strengthen ideological control in the digital age and reassert the party’s primacy, as Mao once did, as the center of Chinese life.
“We must love our country,” said 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 Xi, perhaps China’s most powerful leader since Mao’s time.
“He is using new media to fortify loyalty toward him,” said 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 or not.