China’s new hit app isn’t a messaging platform or a social network — it’s a Communist Party propaganda tool that monitors Chinese citizens.
Smartphone users are rushing to download the software, which collects data on how often users answer questions about the state and how often they watch videos about President Xi Jinping. The most enthusiastic users are rewarded with benefits.
Called “Xuexi Qiangguo”, which translates as ‘Study to make China strong’, the app has been downloaded more than 44 million times since launching last month. It is currently the number one free app on Apple’s App Store, knocking off WeChat and Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok.
The app features include a Snapchat-like messaging service, but it primarily acts as a way for people to keep up to date with news from the Communist Party and in particular the ideology of Xi.
Beijing has made a concerted effort in recent years to retain control over the media landscape, with the influence of TV, radio and print media waning in the face of the digital revolution.
It tightly controls internet access in China using what is known as the Great Firewall, a world-class online censorship infrastructure. It also controls what people can and cannot say on social media by filtering out specific words and topics, especially negative comments about the government.
The app rewards users with study points for reading the news feed, browsing history lessons, answering quizzes about China’s policy and watching videos. For example, reading one article or watching a single video will earn you 0.1 points while a full 30 minutes of either reading articles or viewing video content earns you a full 1.0 points.
Unlike traditional media channels, where engagement metrics are estimated, the app will allow Beijing to measure precisely how engaged people are with the party message.
To encourage party members to use the app during their spare time, it doles out double points during certain periods, such as 8:30 pm to 10 pm during the week, and 9:30 am to 10:30 am, and 3:30 pm to 4:30 pm at the weekend.
The app was reportedly developed in association with online giant Alibaba, once again highlighting the close relationship between private companies in China and the government.
Alibaba has not commented on the app’s development, but the reports will give credence to the view held by many in the West, that Beijing exerts huge control over Chinese companies — a concern that has led the U.S. to try and force allies to eliminate Huawei products from their next generation mobile networks.
Cover Image: This photo illustration taken on February 20, 2019 shows a phone app called 'Xuexi Qiangguo' or 'Study to make China strong' with an image of China's President Xi Jinping in Beijing. (GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)
This article originally appeared on VICE US.