China’s Communist Party Is Making Its Own (Virtual) Reality

Propaganda is getting an upgrade with technological tricks.

A section of the portfolio for Xijian, China's leading augmented reality firm, explains how their technology can be used to improve Chinese Communist Party propaganda. Courtesy of Xijian
A section of the portfolio for Xijian, China's leading augmented reality firm, explains how their technology can be used to improve Chinese Communist Party propaganda. Courtesy of Xijian

Zhongshan has never been a big city, at least by Chinese standards. The city, home to 3.1 million people, is overshadowed by its giant neighbor Shenzhen on the other side of the mouth of the Pearl River Delta. But that doesn’t matter to Zhongshan. It’s building its own alternate reality.

The local Zhongshan Communist Party branch is in possession of a toy not yet available to its big-city counterparts. Thanks to a multimillion-yuan agreement with Xijian (also called Seengene in English), China’s leading augmented reality start-up, Zhongshan’s apparatchik need no longer dread assigned readings of party ideology. After a cadre dons the RoboCop-like headset and opens the bright-red “Guidelines of the Chinese Communist Party,” select passages of text come alive—commands such as “the party rules all” burst out, with flowery backgrounds and moving animations to match.

The Zhongshan City Museum has also received a technological makeover. The same headset can be used by cadres to see a stern-faced Mao Zedong hologram pop out from his statue and levitate over his living underlings. The virtual leader rattles off famous quotations in a set rotation.

Augmented and virtual reality tech is having something of a renaissance in Silicon Valley, where it’s being used to revolutionize an ever-growing list of industries, from Hollywood to manual labor. But in China, as with much else, these have taken a political turn. Augmented reality (AR) refers to the overlay of the physical environment with virtual information; virtual reality (VR) is the creation of an entirely novel digital environment. Both technologies have received explicit patronage from China’s top brass. Last October, Nik Mitchell, the Canadian founder of a small Hangzhou-based VR start-up, was treated to an unexpected visit from Li Zhanshu, China’s top legislator; this was followed up last week by an even more unexpected visit from Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who tried out the company’s equipment. President Xi Jinping himself authorized a letter in October congratulating the VR industry for “expanding humanity’s sensory abilities,” which earned a splashy reception at a global VR conference held that month in China.

Although the most advanced technology in both VR and AR is still in the hands of U.S. conglomerates such as Microsoft, China’s slice of the global VR/AR pie is rapidly becoming the whole dessert: China accounts for 82 percent of global shipments for VR headsets. By late 2018, U.S. investment into AR technologies had slumped to $120 million, while the corresponding Chinese sum had surged to $3.9 billion.

The party leadership’s vision of transforming China from an export manufacturing economy to a world leader in technological innovation, as outlined by the Made in China 2025 master plan, is one reason behind the country’s ever-growing herd of AR/VR start-ups. Xijian CEO Liu Yang refers to concerted government efforts to support tech start-ups, including tax cuts and fast-tracking the registration process, as one of the “advantages of being an AR start-up in a one-party state.”

But another advantage is that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has a dire need for propaganda that breaks away from the usual insipid formats. Liu neglected to mention the perks, such as preferential allocation of projects, available to those start-ups helping the party implement so-called red education programs. Most Chinese propaganda is mind-numbingly dull, from banners bearing hackneyed slogans to subway ads showing citizens tearing up as they sing the national anthem. But AR and VR tech offers the regime a way to shine up the propaganda toolbox.

There is already evidence that technology can exponentially increase propaganda’s appeal. VR/AR headsets are still a frontier, but an app has already taken over China’s masses: Xuexi Qiangguo, a mobile platform devoted solely to the teaching of Xi’s political philosophy, becoming the most downloaded app on China’s Apple App Store in February. Of course, it’s hard to tell how much of this is due to the app format, and how much to do with businesses and party cells making time on the app compulsory for staff. Mao’s Little Red Book, after all, was consumed by hundreds of millions of people without any technological aid.

A month prior, the Propaganda Department of the Communist Youth League debuted an anime glorifying the life of Karl Marx. While largely panned, it at least highlighted the party’s increasing savviness on how to get down with the kids—the Japanese cartoon genre is beloved by Chinese youth all over the country.

One of the most contentious issues in the U.S.-China trade war has been private Chinese enterprises’ liability to act as proxies for the Communist Party. Huawei has recently conducted an all-out PR campaign to counter these kinds of accusations, with founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei repeating incessantly that Beijing has never sought to use his company’s technology as a “backdoor” to spy on other countries, nor would he allow this under his watch. Western media’s frenzied reaction to the revelation of Alibaba founder Jack Ma’s membership of the CCP ignored the simple fact that joining the party is more often than not a pragmatic decision rather than an indication of political loyalty. Most private enterprises do have party committees, but a South China Morning Post report suggested that beyond wooing local authorities, their function is largely nominal. Basically, details regarding the CCP’s role inside private enterprises remain murky, and evidence remains to be found of systematic party interference in the affairs of private enterprises.

Fortunately for the authorities, VR/AR start-ups around the country are pandering to the party’s desire that technology be used to galvanize political loyalty among the rank and file. An industry insider who asked for anonymity observed that, after working in several VR/AR propaganda projects, “it’s become clear most start-ups doing this are looking for easy money. The state of propaganda is such that anything [the start-ups] do will be seen as a major step up.” The source also said, “This is why tech conglomerates like Huawei or Xiaomi don’t take on these projects—there’s no challenge.”

There is also money to be made in peddling futuristic propaganda to children. Zhongji Technology, a Beijing-based VR start-up, has cooperated with several middle schools to produce adrenaline-kicking red education content.

“Reliving the heroic deeds of Red Army soldiers is basically what our red education experience consists of,” said the company’s CEO Liu Yang (unrelated to Xijian’s Liu Yang).

“We’ve been trying to get our VR headsets into newly built airports in Xinjiang, but we don’t have the connections yet,” he added.

Party officials make the final call on whether to allow VR/AR technology in public spaces under their jurisdiction. During the interview with Foreign Policy, Zhongji’s Liu observed that Xijian was respected by himself and other competitors for having “exploited party connections to the fullest.” It’s these kinds of connections that have allowed Xijian to exhibit its technology in tourist-packed sites such as the Old Summer Palace, one of Beijing’s historical landmarks. Zhongji hopes these prized permits will one day be in its possession. Selling more and better red education programs might get it there, eventually.

The timing of these initiatives is no coincidence. Momentous anniversaries of political events make the CCP jittery, and this year is chock-full of them: the 100th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square movement, and the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, among others. Dissenters are a nuisance but pose no real challenge—averting a threat from within is the party’s real priority. In late February, the Central Committee, the CCP’s highest organ of state, released a paper on “party construction,” or how to make party members unwaveringly loyal to Xi’s political philosophy. A month later, the same political body drilled the point home by publishing a set of specific guidelines, calling for cadres to “be especially conscious to regulate political speech and action outside working hours.”

As the switch to 5G networks speeds up in China, the countrywide expansion of red education projects will kick into overdrive. Reality-bending VR and AR content is currently limited by the headsets’ storage capacity, one of the technological impasses preventing widespread adoption of VR/AR headsets. Zhongji’s Liu noted that “until one headset is able to store an unlimited amount of content, its cost will not go down, which means the masses won’t put it on equal footing with an iPhone.”

But with the exponential increases in connectivity this next generation of wireless technology promises, VR/AR start-ups in China are hoping to finally turn their futuristic gadgets into mass products. Xijian’s Liu said, “2019 is a crucial year for our company, because we feel the time is right to start targeting the average consumer.” Overseas consumers are also on the list: Mitchell’s start-up is in talks with members of the Ministry of Propaganda to produce VR content that sells a positive image of China to foreigners.

The entrepreneurs themselves can hardly be blamed. The combination of a one-party state with a heavily liberalized market economy makes it only natural that the party act as both overseer and client of these private enterprises.

But the party is not a client like any other. For a cash-strapped start-up, using its technology to boost this client’s political agenda can save it from the brink of bankruptcy. To well-established players, the CCP’s favor provides a lawful edge over competitors. By dishing out favors to a select few, the party is using the market to its own advantage. China’s AR/VR start-ups, especially newcomers on the block, are now faced with an irresistible incentive to participate in the regime’s project to forge a new kind of propaganda: No longer mind-numbingly dull, the political message is driven home by arousing the senses.

Nationalist ideologies are best served with exhilarating performances, as U.S. President Donald Trump’s antics show. While messages from Xi and party leaders are likely to remain drab, red education looks poised to add the flash they lack.

Eduardo Baptista is a Beijing-based Portuguese-Korean journalist and editor.