The Digital Little Red Book

9 minutes to read
Column
Mingyi Hou
08/10/2019

Everybody knows about Mao's little red book, but who is familiar with the digital little red book? This article explains the functionalities of the digital little red book better known as Xuexi Qiangguo. I will focus on gamification and point out sociopolitical implications for governmentality.

Which digital little red book?

“Have you already used the digital Little Red Book?” A colleague of mine asked me this question with curiosity. “Yes, of course I use that app. Every time I want to know which facial cream works for my skin type or I just want to blind-buy a fragrance, I search the products on that app. You can also search with a geolocation tag to see what local Dutch products are popular, according to the recommendations from Chinese people in the Netherlands. Isn’t it the Bible of shopping?”

Be it the digital Bible of consumerism or communism, the power to govern and to control can benefit from this gaming logic.

My colleague’s face turned from curiosity to bewilderment. “Don’t you learn president Xi’s political thoughts on that platform? It's the digital version of the ‘Little Red Book’, Chairman Mao’s quotes.” I may have been living under a rock. The colleague refers to the application: Xuexi Qianguo. “To study so as to make the country powerful” is its name translated into English. The application is published by the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China, with technical backup from Alibaba, China’s largest e-commerce company. The target users of Xuexi Qiangguo are communist party members and employees in state-owned enterprises. 

The Little Red Book, literally Xiao Hong Shu (小红书) that I have been using is one of the most popular social networking and online shopping platforms in China. It is a platform where communities of interests and influencers share lifestyles and consumption experiences.

The icons of Xuexi Qiangguo (left) and Xiao Hong Shu (right)

Without quickly jumping onto the scripts of digital dystopia by cobbling together anticipations like “it can be used in this way to do that”, I will first explain the functionalities of Xuexi Qiangguo, drawing on the concept of gamification and then point out some sociopolitical implications for governmentality. Be it the digital Bible of consumerism or of communism, the power to govern and to control can benefit from the logic of gaming.

The functionalities of Xuexi Qiangguo

The application can do everything, or at least has the potential to fulfil many tasks that are performed by different apps in the ecology of Chinese digital platforms. To make a comparison, it includes the functionalities of NOS (news aggregator and publisher), Coursera (massive open online courses), Netflix (premium video streaming), YouTube (short video), Spotify (music streaming), WhatsApp (instant messaging), Zoom (video conferencing), Google calendar (digital agenda) and live satellite TV streaming. 

Putting the communication functions aside, we may focus first on what users “study” while using this app. The app aggregates mainstream political news and contains popular entertainment content, which reflects dominant sociopolitical values. Presumably, users acquire the dominant ideology of contemporary China on this app. Here we come to one of the key features of Xuexi Qiangguo. The users/learners acquire points when they read news articles, watch videos and conduct quizzes. In other words, the activities are vividly quantified and such metrics encourage users to accumulate more points on the app. For local level communist party organizations, for instance university branches, the rank and competition of the points among party members motivate them to use the app more often. Once they have attained a certain number of points, users are rewarded with digital commodities, such as a data package from a telecommunication company. Importantly, the users are connected with one another and within the organization. Management tasks become convenient through the application.

This strategy is called gamification. Gamification is a process of implementing game elements or game design in a non-game context.

The functionalities of Xuexi Qiangguo begin to look familiar once I open the Albert Heijn supermarket app. I read sales posters and recipes, check product information, swipe the digital bonus card, and accumulate stamps all through this single app. As such, I can be rewarded with my personal discount coupon and buy limited edition knife sets or wine glasses at rebate prices.  To accumulate points and stamps is challenging, but once the goal is achieved, users are rewarded.

Collect stamps for limited edition wine glass

This strategy is called gamification. Gamification is a process of implementing game elements or game design in a non-game context. The challenging and rewarding gaming experiences are applied to enhance customer loyalty and employment performance (Muriel and Crawford, 2018). Gamification is a strategic design that has been applied in many fields, including but not limited to marketing, education, sport and sociality.

In general, all social networking platforms implement some features typical of games. Popularity metrics encourage users to socialize with one another. People also experience a sense of agency, participation and fulfilment in the gaming process. I can wander around in the map of Counter Strike and the digital money I have earned can afford me with another new gun. In a similar vein, Xuexi Qiangguo users also face a wide selection of news and videos, and they may feel good when witnessing their point metrics go up and surpass those of their colleagues.

However, gamification has been criticized because of its potential for exploitative use. Gamers are nudged to choose pre-determined and intended choices since the developers have set up the parameters in a particular way. Customers are encouraged to purchase more, purchase more often and only purchase at Albert Hijen. As to Xuexi Qiangguo, the party members are encouraged to only receive their news through this mainstream platform.

Studying the ideological material and political agenda is not a new thing for communist party members. Local party branches, being informed by higher-level party organizations, organize study and discussion activities. However, the connective and profiling functions of Xuexi Qiangguo make the management and mobilization more accountable and centralized. Studying also becomes individualized and domesticated in this context. The always-connected mobile media enable users to study according to their own schedule at any place. Of course, the dystopia potential here is the politicization of everyday life, where one needs to study everywhere and all the time.

Is it a propaganda tool?

Xuexi Qiangguo climbed to the top of the Apple app store rank in China when it was first released in January 2019. Soon, opinions began to emerge online in which users complain that some local party organizations were taking the word “study” literally, by requiring party members to accumulate a minimum number of points every day. In some cases, cheating software was used to fulfil this task. Later, the publicity department brought about a new regulation indicating that local party organizations should not take the point and rank metrics of the application as the only standard to assess party members’ study outcomes.

Political publicity does not work with the “magic bullet” model. For the past fifty years, this model has been criticized in communication studies for its simplistic assumptions about media effect. Audiences do not internalize and identify immediately with the ideological content they consume from media, like a bullet penetrating their minds. However, our journalistic observations may still cast this schema onto Xuexi Qiangguo. Forcing people to use the application is not a desirable scenario as we can see from the abovementioned public opinion backlash, let aside the identification with a political agenda. From a Foucauldian perspective, power does not necessarily inhibit or force, it generates, makes possible and sets the engine on the autonomous gear. In this sense, the question “how people are forced to use the app” appears less insightful than the question “what Xuexi Qiangguo enables users to do, leading to coherence with the dominant ideologies without overt coercion”.

“Live to learn” seems to be a value that can survive from Confucianism to Neoliberalism.

As the party members are required to download it, young people also seem to accept the app for a reason: the massive number of free online courses. In the course section of Xuexi Qiangguo, one can watch video courses on many disciplines, ranging from traditional Chinese philosophy to discussions of romantic relationships in Greek mythology, from statistics 101 to molecular biology.  It also live streams satellite television channels for free. To catch up with a TV show or a match on-the-go becomes easy.  

Online courses: comparative literature, applied linguistics

People will rarely show interest if an application only holds political propaganda. But “live to learn” seems to be a value that can survive the shift from Confucianism to Neoliberalism. The application’s  icon shows two traditional characters with the meaning “study, learn” (學習). The calligraphy of the icon is from Mao Zedong who dedicated the sentence “study hard and make progress everyday” to school children in the 1950s. The character “Xi” happens to be the surname of the contemporary Chinese president Xi Jinpin. The application’s name therefore delivers the association that the users are studying Xi’s political thoughts. With all these political implications in mind, when opening the app, the boot animation shows Confucius' famous saying, “To learn and to practice on a regular basis. Isn’t it a lovely thing?” In this case, mainstream ideology is naturalized with the age-old tradition of learning. To internalize the mainstream political agenda is then also to enrich one’s knowledge.

If we believe young people are too lazy to learn anything, then we make a mistake regarding the neoliberal culture of education in contemporary China. Journalists and lawyers enroll themselves in Java programming and data mining courses after work. White-collars practice English conversation on their mobile phones during lunch hours. A friend of mine who works for one of the largest European aircraft manufacturers was planning to get another BA degree, on top of her MA diploma from a prestigious French business school. Everyone is practicing some “extra curriculum”, as everyone strives to be a better version of “me” and be reflexive about one’s trajectory. This is a symptom of the neoliberal self, where the individual person becomes an enterprise to plan, invest, and risk-manage. The Xuexi Qiangguo app provides an individualized solution to relieve, if not to produce, such anxiety. A free app with free online courses is at arm’s length, as long as one takes the initiative for self-improvement.

How can governmentality function in digital age?

At first sight, Xuexi Qiangguo may appear to be only a “political task” that is enforced on its users. However, its design and application imply how governmentality can be operated through digital media. The gamification logic produces a participatory and autonomous user who takes the initiative to acquire the intended behaviors and social values. Put concisely, it produces compliance.

"The emperors Yao, Shung and Yu all governed the nation in their comfortable clothes." ─ Books of Changes

By expanding its functionalities, the platform tries to meet the communication needs of various groups of people beyond party members. In addition to the free online courses tickling young people’s anxieties, Xuexi Qiangguo may also become an important professional communication tool for Chinese state-owned organizations, video-conferencing and a digital agenda being some of the newly added functions. On a wider scale, if it is a convenient tool, people may not feel bothered by some mainstream political news in it ─ just like how users pay other social media platforms with their profile data. Moreover, the application also individualizes political mass mobilization by capitalizing on the mobility afforded by smartphones and wireless connection. Governmentality thus transcends the boundary between the public and the private.

Book of Changes, the ancient Chinese literature from 1100.B.C., mentioned that ancient emperors Yao, Shun and Yu all governed the nation in their comfortable clothes. In other words, rather than enforcing discipline and punishment, they appeared to have done nothing beyond following “the rules of the nature”.  Three thousand years later, digital technologies are replacing the rules of nature with its autonomous, participatory and databased functionalities. Digitalization helps to practice the ancient teaching ─ governing in one’s comfortable clothes.

References

Muriel, D., & Crawford, G. (2018). Video Games as Culture: Considering the Role and Importance of Video Games in Contemporary Society. London: Routledge.