While TikTok is taking up much oxygen in our media ecosystem, another Chinese app provides a more interesting point of departure from which to discuss Sino-American relations. That app is Xuexi Qiangguo.
“Study Xi, Strong Nation”
Xuexi Qiangguo, or “Study Xi, Strong Nation” is an app produced by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to instruct and monitor the Chinese people in their understanding of the philosophy of Xi Jinping. It is a content platform that makes Xi’s thinking—clunkily dubbed Xi Jinping Thought—accessible, fun, and even gamified. That such an app exists confounds the American mind. Imagining a similar effort by Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign team or the GOP, one can’t help but snicker. The very idea of a Trump Thought app would be ruthlessly mocked and would only serve to exacerbate existing generational political divides. While it isn’t impossible to envision such an idea tossed around in a Turning Point USA brainstorming session, even the most ardent Trump sycophant would consider it folly. Xuexi Qiangguo, however, is a phenomenon; it rocketed to the top slot on Apple’s China app store in February of last year. According to Huawei, Xuexi Qiangguo has now been downloaded more than 900 million times.
And by all accounts engagement is lively. That’s not surprising, considering users’ “scores” can be viewed alongside those of their personal contacts, according to the Open Technology Fund. Chilling as that alone may be, to appreciate the gravity of Xuexi Qiangguo, we need to move beyond the downloads, swipes, and stars and consider its content.
What Is Xi Jinping Thought?
Xi Jinping Thought (or, officially, Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era) is the distillation of years of party philosophy. According to Chris Buckley of the New York Times, “the doctrine is a blueprint for consolidating and strengthening power at three levels: the nation, the party and Mr. Xi himself.” With Xi no longer beholden to term limits, Xi Jinping Thought may well define China’s posture for decades.
The first prong of Xi Jinping Thought is nationalist revival. Xi intends to cleanse any vestiges of China’s “century of humiliation”—see Hong Kong—and rouse the spirits of his country’s citizens in a “great rejuvenation.” The second prong is redoubling a focus on party primacy. As described by scholar Steve Tsang, Xi’s thinking more closely resembles the party-forward orientation of Liu Shaoqi than the personality-cult favored by Mao Zedong. The third prong, nonetheless, is Xi’s own centrality to the party and to the nation.
“The goal of Xi Jinping Thought,” Tsang writes, “is not to launch a cold war with the West, or to export China’s political model. Rather, Xi wants to shore up the authority of the party-state – and his own brand of authoritarianism – within China, including by ensuring that Chinese are not exposed to liberal-democratic ideas.” Xuexi Qiangguo is a clear expression of this intention. While that reading of Xi Jinping Thought might seem to render TikTok harmless, other aspects of the party project indicate that concern is warranted.
China’s National Intelligence Law
Part of Xi Jinping Thought is the bringing together of different parts of what the CCP conceives of as a whole, into the national rejuvenation project. Chinese companies, TikTok owner Bytedance included, are parts of that whole. In fact, the Chinese law codifies this. China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law demands that all entities subject to PRC jurisdiction contribute to intelligence gathering efforts when called upon. This duty applies to state-owned companies, non-state-owned companies, and even individual citizens.
For Lawfare in 2017, Murray Scot Tanner wrote:
“The new law is the latest in an interrelated package of national security, cyberspace, and law enforcement legislation drafted under Xi Jinping. These laws and regulations are aimed at strengthening the legal basis for China’s security activities and requiring Chinese and foreign citizens, enterprises, and organizations to cooperate with them.”
He added that the National Intelligence Law:
“repeatedly obliges individuals, organizations, and institutions to assist Public Security and State Security officials in carrying out a wide array of ‘intelligence’ work. Article Seven stipulates that ‘any organization or citizen shall support, assist, and cooperate with state intelligence work according to law.’ Article 14, in turn, grants intelligence agencies authority to insist on this support: ‘state intelligence work organs, when legally carrying forth intelligence work, may demand that concerned organs, organizations, or citizens provide needed support, assistance, and cooperation.’”
There is, thus, little consequence to the distinction between public and private bodies that China doves are apt to invoke.
The current TikTok furor cannot be processed in a vacuum. That’s not how the CCP operates. Whether American teens should be barred from their favorite quarantine pastime is a complicated question, but in having that discussion we need to bear in mind the context of Xi Jinping Thought. Xuexi Qiangguo is illustrative of the CCP’s utilization of cyber platforms to enhance its political project. What makes TikTok threatening is that if we take seriously the party’s doctrinal evolution, we would need to expect that it will be weaponized.