China's Xi Jinping app created to propagate nationalism, targets women in romance scams

·5-min read
Representative Image
Representative Image

Beijing [China], June 24 (ANI): In recent months, local media and public security bureaus across China have reported a surge of men targeting women in romance scams using Study Xi, Strong Nation, an app created by the Communist Party's propaganda department in 2019 to promote the study of "Xi Jinping Thought."

The scammers duped victims by claiming their official positions (military officers and government officials) that prevented them from using social media or normal dating apps, reported Los Angeles Times.

Ziyu Yang, writing in Los Angeles Times said that China's Xi Jinping app went from pushing nationalism to scamming women.

The officials including civil servants, teachers, employees of state-owned companies and bureaucrats chatted daily on Study Xi, Strong Nation to score points by studying "Xi Jinping Thought", said Ziyu.

In modus operandi, the Study Xi scammers would lure their targets into lucrative investment schemes on shady online platforms.

In some cases, the victims transferred millions of RMB (the official currency of China) before realising they'd been tricked, according to a report from Zhejiang province that has since been deleted, reported Los Angeles Times.

The government has tried to erase such revelations. Similar media and police reports of 'Study Xi' scams in Sichuan, Guangxi, Guangdong, Shanghai, Shandong and Hubei have been censored.

"When a scamming gang sets its sights on Study Xi, Strong Nation, the new script appears on the pig-slaughter plate," said a police officer in a video warning about the scams. He was using Chinese slang in which unwitting victims are compared to pigs slowly fattened with trust, then suddenly led to the slaughter.

It is ironic, if embarrassing, twist in the story of a digital indoctrination app that has been called the Xi-era version of Mao Zedong's Little Red Book -- a tool of ideological control that has been subverted for sinister purposes. It underscores a broader online and telephone fraud problem that also has worrying implications for privacy as police expand surveillance of cellphones, says Ziyu.

The Xi app gamified study of the president's teachings, awarding points for frequent log-ins, time spent reading and watching videos of Xi's speeches, and for taking quizzes on "Xi Jinping Thought." Scores were kept in competition on public leaderboards that sometimes became part of employees' work performance reviews.

It soon became the most downloaded app in China, drawing international media attention for its coercion of performed patriotism as well as its surveillance potential, reported Los Angeles Times.

A security 2019 audit by the Open Technology Fund found that Study Xi contained code amounting to a digital backdoor that essentially allowed "complete administrator-level access to a user's phone."

The app was also sending detailed daily logs of user activity and could scan phones to find other apps, including foreign ones like WhatsApp, Kakao Talk, Facebook Messenger and Skype.

Having such international phone apps has led to harsh consequences, notably in China's far western Xinjiang region, where Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities found with them through intense police surveillance have been detained in "re-education" camps. Many had committed no crimes.

Such treatment has so far not extended to the Han Chinese majority outside of Xinjiang. But contact with foreign websites and overseas networks have already become a red flag in China's battle against digital fraud.

According to a 2020 report on countering digital fraud by the China Academy for Information and Communications Technology, a government think tank that reports to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, more than 95 per cent of digital scammers contact their targets from IP addresses outside of mainland China.

Many scammers belong to Chinese organized crime networks based in Southeast Asia, said a police officer from Hunan who had made online videos warning of the Xi app scams. He asked not to use his name because he did not have permission to speak with media. These Mandarin-speaking networks are involved not only in digital scams, he said, but also online gambling, drug and wildlife trafficking, and other kinds of illicit activity, reported Los Angeles Times.

While China's fraud problems are real, many reviewers of the anti-fraud app are questioning whether the true intention of the app is protection or surveillance -- or just another example of incompetent "formalism" among Chinese bureaucrats eager to meet performance quotas by producing high download numbers.

In May, China implemented new regulations that defined for the first time what personal information was "necessary" for apps to collect and outlawed excessive data collection and to check fraud.

Within a few weeks, regulators had taken 90 apps offline for "irregular collection of personal information," including apps made by some of China's most powerful tech companies.

The police anti-fraud app seems to do exactly what the government is trying to stop tech companies from doing. It requires that users submit their phone number, real name, ID number, home address and facial recognition data. It also requires access to the device's contacts, messages, apps, photos, visited websites, music, videos, recordings, social media accounts, transactions, calls, microphone, camera, screenshots, location and storage, reported Los Angeles Times.

From that perspective, whether the app actually lowers fraud matters less than the illusion of many users joining an anti-fraud campaign, just as whether people truly believe in "Xi Jinping Thought" mattered less than having millions of users score points on Xi quizzes every day, said Ziyu. (ANI)

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