China’s new viral app could be straight out of Black Mirror

China’s new viral app could be straight out of Black Mirror

By: Eleanor Peake (with a few quotes from me)     Source: Wired    Date: 20/10/17

Getty Images / Pool

A bizarre new game has gone viral in China. Applaud president Xi Jinping for his party speech as fast as you can, and then share your results online.

The Tencent-owned app started to be rapidly shared as soon as it was released on October 18, netting 400 million players by 9PM Beijing time. Since then it has amassed more than 1.2 billion plays.

The game was released following the opening of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in Beijing. The conference and subsequent presidential speech are the biggest events in the Chinese political calendar. Coming once every five years, the series of Party meetings will go on until October 24 and will reset or reaffirm the agenda of the party.

To play the game, you have to first watch a 30-second segment of the Xi’s marathon 3.5 hour speech. In the section of the speech featured on the game (mobile only), President Xi Jinping declares that it is the mission of the Communist Party of China to strive for the happiness and the rise of the Chinese people.

The app lets you clap for Xi by tapping the screen of your phone as many times as you can in 18 seconds. You can then invite your friends to compete with you, sharing your results online and creating further digital content.

Screenshot of applauding President Xi

“In many ways, Xi Jinping has been described as the model of a modern multimedia leader” says Ros Holmes, research fellow at University of Oxford, specialising in popular forms of cultural production in China. “He is frequently across a broad spectrum of digital platforms designed to conflate his multiple roles as a ‘tireless public servant’, ‘skilled international diplomat’, ‘willing workaholic’ and ‘accessible everyman,’” she says.

“This type of propaganda drive is particularly important during the Party Congress,” says Holmes, “when the CCP is extremely vigilant about harnessing the full power of social media positively for the Party”.

The popularity of the game underlines how the Chinese government relies on much more than the power of censorship and control for legitimacy. “It encourages and feeds off popular feelings and mass action, much like the cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong in 1966,” says William Callahan, professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science and an expert on Chinese politics.

Screenshot of President Xi giving his speech 

Similarities can be found in the app ‘Xuexi Zhongguo,’ launched in 2015, which provides an educational insight into the teachings of Xi and the Chinese Communist party, as well as attempting to give an interactive playful side to party leaders.

The app translates directly as “Study China,” but is also a play on Xi’s surname, which could suggest the alternative reading of “Study Xi’s China”. In the past five years, the Central Publicity Department, formerly the Propaganda Department has devoted considerable resources to developing videos games which glorify the party and consolidate Xi’s position.

However, Holmes is sceptical of the Tencent app’s popularity. “I suspect that a significant proportion of those alleged ‘400 million players’ were engaging with the game in a more ironic manner than the party intended”, she says. A move which reflects the deeply satirical culture which has emerged in China’s online spaces in recent years, after various censorship campaigns by the State.

“Many of these forms of digital propaganda are clearly designed to humanise Xi and China’s top leaders, providing insights into their personal lives as well as presenting official statistics” says Holmes.

The app comes at a time when Xi has been making moves to further consolidate himself as the central authority in the CPC. The 19th Party Congress is predicted to refocus the role Xi and his central influence on the country. “What is more disturbing than the app,” says Steven Lewis, a C.V. Starr Transnational China fellow at the Rice University’s Baker Institute, “is the way traditional Chinese State media has begun to change how they reference Xi”. The media has begun to use the title ‘lingxiu’ or ‘leader‘ which in the past was used to reference Mao Zedong, from 1949 to 1976.

“Ideologically, the Party has elevated his words to new communist scripture, referencing them as Xi Jinping Thought” says Lewis, which all Party members must read and follow.

However, although Lewis says the app was likely born out of a benign marketing strategy by Tencent to meet their “public service quota”, he adds the real concern for Xi and the party is maintaining its legitimacy in the long-term. “If very bright young people do not join the Party to keep it going then it will wither” says Lewis, “the app contributes to that strategy”.

CENTRE FOR CHINESE VISUAL ART 10TH ANNUAL CONFERENCE: CHINESE ART OUTSIDE THE ART SPACE

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The Centre for Chinese Visual Art is hosting its 10th annual conference this week, which is themed around ‘Chinese Art Outside the Art Space’. As the organisers explain: “Focusing on art made, displayed, performed or executed outside the conventional venues of art museums and galleries, this conference not only offers a unique perspective to understand Chinese art in the contemporary context, but also, more importantly, it aims to critically reflect upon the understandings between art and art exhibition, between artistic productions and audience perceptions, and between art and our daily life. The unique programme of this confernece will focus on the questions, problematics and investigations around the theme of ‘art outside the art space’ in China.”

Date: 12-13 October 2017

Venue: Lecture Theatre, School of Art, Birmingham City University, B33BX

The full conference programme is included below.