China’s ominous app

In the last few years (roughly since November 2016) I’ve been feeling pretty down about the way things have been going in my country. To me, the abstract blow that came with victory for the guy I didn’t vote for in the presidential election has been followed by many concrete blows, steps down roads leading to places we don’t want to go as a nation, in terms of wealth inequality, human rights abuses, racism, healthcare injustice—the list is long and discouraging.

As so often happens, contemplating a dire situation elsewhere helps to put my own challenges into perspective. I read a few days ago about a smartphone app in China that makes it easy for the Communist Party to keep tabs on people it wants to control. From my New York Times morning briefing, April 8, 2019:

The app bolstering Communist control

A smartphone app in China called Study the Great Nation is becoming a potent instrument of control for President Xi Jinping and the ruling Communist Party.

Users earn points by staying current on news about Mr. Xi, and many employers now require workers to submit daily screenshots documenting how many points they have earned.

More than 100 million people have registered as users since the app was released this year, according to the state news media. That wide adoption stems, at least in part, from coercion.

This short piece reminded me of other news I had heard, including this Atlantic article that outlines other aspects of the Chinese system that in increasingly able to police the lives of the Chinese people in alarming ways.

It’s been a long time since I read works about the mid-twentieth-century rise of Chairman Mao in China, so I’m fuzzy on details. But I seem to remember that there was a lot of emphasis placed on controlling how people behaved, what they read and listened to, and on making sure that they were on board with the official party line. Consequences for people who wanted to think another way were severe.



Here’s a detail that is hard to forget: Chairman Mao’s regime is estimated to have been responsible for between 40 and 70 million deaths through starvation, prison labour and mass executions.*

In recent years I had been thinking that because of their economic progress, China was likely to be liberalizing, and that political freedoms might be on the horizon. But the Study the Great Nation app fits with a different kind of picture entirely.

Again I turn to the New York Times for a video that puts current trends into historical context. The section describing China’s economic progress challenged my previous assumptions. But for citizens of the US, the most sobering part is the last section of the video.



I’m left with these thoughts: I’m very thankful that my government is not using an app to control us as American citizens. But I’m also very aware that the greatest threats to American democracy and our political wellbeing are probably not external ones, nor official ones. They are nevertheless potent and dangerous.

We must take care.


*Fenby, J (2008). Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present. Ecco Press. p. 351. Mao’s responsibility for the extinction of anywhere from 40 to 70 million lives brands him as a mass killer greater than Hitler or Stalin, his indifference to the suffering and the loss of humans breathtaking.

[Images: Jason Lee/Reuters,]

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