The Chinese Communist Party demands that its members hang on every word of the party's general secretary, President Xi Jinping, and submit their reflections to their superiors.
But for those who lack the time or inclination to do so, the spirit of free enterprise could come to the rescue with a service that allows them to buy ready-made studies of Xi's comments.
One service being advertised on WeChat, the country's most popular social media platform, offers studies for as little as 28 yuan (US$4.30).
The man behind the service, who identified himself by his surname Wang, boasted that he already has a stockpile of writings on Xi's July 1 speech to mark the party's centenary.
The requirement that cadres of all levels study the leader's comments and submit their reflections has become the norm in China's top-down governance system, and since Xi came to power in 2012 a number of initiatives have been launched to "unify thoughts within the party".
An app called Xuexi Qiangguo, or study the strong nation, offers daily tests on Xi's thoughts with rewards on offer for the most active users. Downloading and using the app is compulsory for the party's 95 million members.
But enterprising self-starters like Wang, who claimed to have a decade of experience working in official media, have turned this drive into moneymaking ventures because many cadres are either too busy or simply reluctant to perform these tasks.
Wang's studies, all heavily laden with party jargon, typically start with an elaborate overview of Xi's speech, contain an analysis of specific sections that are relevant to the customer's line of work, throw in a pledge of loyalty and then conclude by explaining how the speech will inspire them in the future.
"Tailor-made samples are available for officials at township, county, municipal and provincial level," Wang said.
"They are also categorized according to the different nature of their work, such as the disciplinary commission, the political and legal commission, organization department, Communist Youth League, tax and so on."
Wang claimed that his ever-growing archive has over 40,000 samples covering the leadership's key policies including the latest party history education drive, the campaign to "rectify" the political and legal affairs commission, pointers on how to respond to discipline inspections, a summary of the annual work report and even self-criticisms.
For as little as 898 yuan (US$138) a year, members can access the whole archive. He said "dozens of people" buy his studies every day and his client base is mainly low-ranking cadres who "have no secretary but need to submit lots of things in writing".
Wang is not alone. Hundreds of similarly enterprising service providers are touting their writings on China's major search engines and e-commerce portals.
Another ghost writer named Sun, who said he was a retired civil servant from Shandong province, said his prices start at 9.90 yuan. He declined to give his full name.
Sun said he gets a competitive edge by offering a personalized writing service. "Tell me your job function and the nature of the report, I will send a tailor-made copy to you in 24 hours. The charges will depend on the detailed requirements," he said.
"Many people find that useful as their superiors or inspectors might just run random checks on submissions. Many have been caught and punished for plagiarism."
Unsurprisingly, the party takes a dim view of such practices and its disciplinary organ has repeatedly warned against such practices, adding that some people have been caught because they had not bothered to remove the watermarks from the studies they had downloaded.
Those caught face punishment ranging from a warning letter, a face-to-face reprimand or a serious warning record being added to their personal file, which severely damages their chances of promotion.
Many low-ranking party members are tempted to take short cuts because of their workload which leaves them with "little room to breathe", according to a clerk named Chen from Shenzhen's Meisha subdistrict.
A recent Covid-19 outbreak in Yantian, a district that includes Meisha, had added to the pressure. "(There are) simply too many reports to file, too many WeChat group messages to reply to, too many people need to be tested," said the official.
Chen said he watched Xi's speech with other clerks in the office on July 1 but they were "fortunate to have an understanding boss" who only asked them to turn in their reflections in the second week of July.
The officials were finally allowed to stand down on July 4, two weeks after all Yantian's Covid cases had been released from hospital.
But Chen insisted he did not need to use a template to write his latest study as he had written hundreds of pieces for his bosses, adding: "I know how to handle the formula."
Professor Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, said while this phenomenon exists everywhere, China's top-down Leninist system makes it difficult to control it effectively.
"To minimise 'formalism' a government needs to provide the right incentive to its officials ... The 'right' incentives are a combination of an esprit de corps that formalism is beneath us as we are committed public servants and a public accountability system that encourages members of the public, who are at the receiving end of the ill effects of formalism, to report them and seek rectification," Tsang said. "Neither exists in the Chinese system."
"If it is just a matter of top-down Leninist control, it is a matter of how effective that control can be. Xi may like to think that he has restored the party into the most powerful Leninist machinery, but it is clearly not powerful and effective enough to contain formalism to a manageable level.
"The fact that cadres tolerate their juniors paying someone else to write formal papers shows that they themselves do not truly believe in the value of those papers. It shows one limit of the reach of Xi's power, however much he focuses on enhancing it."
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