A Chinese education app topped the charts in February on Apple’s App Store. The app is called Xuexi Qiangguo, or Learning Power in the App Store’s English translation. It is a quiz app that allows you to score points for knowing Chinese trivia and recent news about Xi Jinping. It has about 44 million downloads as of February, and is quickly becoming ubiquitous in China. Some businesses have been requiring employees to submit scores daily, in an effort to cozy up to the Communist Party of China. Even now, when you search the app under its Chinese name, Xuexi Qiangguo, the App Store description says “No. 1 in Education.” 

Chinese citizens can earn points by watching videos about Xi Jinping’s recent political accomplishments, scoring high on quizzes, and learning Chinese history. People are ranked within their provinces, and high scorers are lauded by state-friendly Chinese news. Students are encouraged to attend study sessions to increase their scores, and many cheating services have popped up and been shut down since the app’s arrival. The history section of the app notably omits major events like the recent mass detention of over one million Uyghurs, Turkic Muslims living in the Xinjiang Province of China. All of this bears striking resemblance to a Mao-era propaganda tool known as Mao’s “Little Red Book” — the app is even published on the App Store under the Chinese “Central Propaganda Department and Publicity Research Center.”

Illustration by Annabel Driussi

 Mao’s “Little Red Book,” was a propaganda tool used during Mao’s rule of China that contained about 200 Mao quotes about philosophy and communism. Mao’s book became a requirement in all households, and people usually carried it on their person at all times. Mao’s “Red Book” encouraged people to study the philosophy of and quotes by their leader; however, there wasn’t a way to “test” people’s knowledge of the book. Xuexi Qiangguo has a very similar philosophy at heart, but it also has the ability to hold citizens accountable for not only possession of the app, but also the knowledge and internalization of information. Users even regularly receive notifications with Xi Jinping quotes. The “Little Red App” has exceeded the “Little Red Book” in propaganda potential.

None of this, however, has deterred Apple from distributing it on the App Store.  A tech giant such as Apple should not be supporting the distribution of a propaganda tool that is having a seriously negative impact on some people’s lives. Employees with low scores receive lower wages, school teachers have been publicly scorned for not achieving high scores, and people who help cheat on the app have been arrested. The app is not voluntary, but it is not expressly required either, and yet people are losing their livelihood and being punished as criminals because of it. 

One could make the argument that Apple has no place in the regulation or prevention of the distribution of this app because today you can purchase Mao’s “Little Red Book” from Amazon for $12. Both of these things are propaganda tools — why allow the distribution of one over the other?

 No one would argue that book banning is a good idea, especially since today it is used as a historical and educational tool. However, the “Little Red Book” was published by and large within China during the cultural revolution of the 60s and 70s. American companies were not assisting in the publication and distribution of the book. 

However, Apple is allowing the app to be distributed on their platform. A company with any respect   for human rights ought to prevent the distribution of such an app. Apple should remove the application from its App Store, and prevent the Chinese propaganda department from publishing more apps in the future. 

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