Come join the Study Small Group

Welcoming into the muddled firmament of CCP education tools, Study Small Group (Xuexi Xiaozu) (SSG), a recent arrival in Wechat world supposedly set up by someone very, very close to Xi Jinping. It’s meant as a way of getting the Great Leader’s message out, directly and simply, to the Party faithful. At times it reads as if it’s the boss himself sounding off, outside the binds of official Party documents, which he must know from all his years, everyone hates reading.

I’ve spent a little time recently reading its daily output. It’s pretty awful, of course, but compared to the Study the Strong Country (Xuexi Qiangguo) app materials, which can kill at less than five paces, it is positively Mad Men in its propaganda velvetyness. And as far as I can tell there’s no score-50-points-this-month-or-you’ll-be-fired quota system behind it. Recently SSG has been running a campaign against “formalism” (excuse the translation of xingshi zhuyi; all complaints to Pleco), which is a term for all the many ills of bureaucracy. I thought I’d translate a summary article that was sent to local cadres.

It reads weirdly. But, believe me, it’s not (entirely) my fault. I admit I have no special translation talent or training, but in my defense, the original piece has loads of run-on sentences, as though it’s a transcript of someone (see above) not very organized talking. The examples it provides are always vague, and sometimes do not really match the point being made. The piece drifts; there’s a lot not doing this or that, not much on what you should do. I guess that partly they’ve chosen this style as they think its more easily read and understood by local cadres. I’ve added the Chinese when I’m feeling pretentious and when, at least to my ear, the words have special resonance. Say, for instance, chuxin, given it’s part of that infamous slogan.

I think we can take away a few lessons.

First, General Secretary Xi Jinping is very much annoyed with all the “formalism” that’s rampant out there – the term covers everything from laziness, gaming the system, ordering your subordinates to do useless work, and only superficially fulfilling Beijing’s wishes. Instead, the not-so-great helmsman wants you “rectifying and reforming’ all day, every day.

Of course, battling bureaucracy is the necessary and never-ending battle of any bureaucracy. Mao fought this battle, so did Deng; both are quoted in this piece; Jiang and Hu no doubt did too, but no one gives a about them these days, so no mention of them.

Second, they’ve found no effective way to stop it. They know the points system (kaohe zhi) can be gamed. Without bribes to motivate bureaucrats, and of course without any external oversight or voting system, there’s only really ideology and threats left. So, third, life as a local cadre is pretty miserable. The incomparable Pei Minxin made this same observation just recently here. And he pointed out that despite the lack of high-profile arrests recently, punishments for small offenses continue to rack up.

But neither ideology or threats will work. Threats just stop risk-averse people doing anything. And ideology probably makes things worse; it deadens the mind, wastes hours a week in pointless “study” sessions, and most importantly it never provides any realistic guidance on what you’re supposed to do. Read the translation with an eye for what you, as a district party secretary is supposed to now do. You’ll be none the wiser.

And the situation has gotten even more ridiculous in recent months. The Propaganda Department bureaucrats set up the Xuexi Qianguo app (with their Alibaba contractors), which really annoyed the Organization Department bureaucrats, who in theory are in charge of cadre development. I don’t know, but I’d bet a case of Wuliangye that the Organization bureaucrats are now planning their own education extravaganza. And into this morass now wanders Xuexi Xiaozu. It sounds at times like a leader fuming. There’s that old saw about Chinese politics that the Party has both thumbs (for brutally stamping down on bad things) AND fingers (for sorting gppd things out smartly) (Daniel Koss’s book is really good on the Party’s efficacy here). But this missive certainly does not feel like sophisticated fingers are at work.

Fourth, what happens next? Will Xi ultimately become so frustrated that he’ll decide to do a Mao and attempt to destroy his own bureaucracy? I think the odds are low – he’s a man of order and control (I considered this question here). But if his continued efforts to coral his 10mn cadres fails, what does he do? I do not know.

So here we go with the SSG missive….

The Central Committee has made this year as the year of reducing the burden on grassroots cadres, and has issued lots of policies and rules, from the centre and from localities. But formalism is still a chronic disease in the development of the Party. Recently the Study Small Group has issued ten pieces on reducing the grassroots burden. Today, we try to take from these pieces and online comments to provide some advice.

Performance: Rudimentary, Childish, Useless, Wasteful use of money. When we say formalism is an chronic disease, it is because its always been a shadow over the historical development of the Party. In the revolutionary war, after the failure of the Jinggan August Struggle, Mao Zedong wrote a report to the Central Committee sternly criticizing Hunan province’s representative, Du Xiujing. “He didn’t check the current environment, he only knew how to how to bureaucratically follow the Hunan province committees’ orders”, and he seriously harmed the struggle in Hunan and Jiangxi provinces. “His mistakes were extremely serious”.

In 1972, when Nixon visited China, there was a day when the temperature dropped to zero, several villagers were by the side of the road, playing chess with their heads down, even when the US president and first lady arrived, they did not move. Nixon said, “This is organized for us to see”. When Zhou Enlai heard about it later, he told Nixon, candidly, “We have a few ways of doing things which are a bit dishonest, it’s formalism’.

At the beginning of 1992, Deng Xiaoping on his Southern Tour said sternly, “We now have a problem. It’s too much formalism. Once I turn on the TV it’s full of meetings. There are loads of meetings, the documents are too long, the speeches are too long, and the content is repeated, theres’s no new language. We have to repeat the same words, but we should simplify. Formalism is also bureaucratism.”

Loads of meetings, loads of inspections, loads of filing in forms. Some “leader has a meeting, the secretary has all the hard work”. There’s even the phenomenon when the secretary writes better quality content than the leader. Some grassroots inspections don’t even understand the grassroots. Whatever the leader says that’s the end of the matter. “One person does the work, three people watch, six people inspect”. Some reforms don’t do anything concrete. Also, the reform content in reports is just copy and pasted. They even‘put Zhang’s hat on Li’s head [i.e. attribute to the wrong person]. Some cadres don’t assume responsibility. But they hanker after making a superficial show. Even in poor areas, they just spend money paint the walls white. Al these types of formalism, Party Secretary Xi Jinping has sternly criticized. “Don’t eat, don’t dress up, don’t do these useless tasks and waste the country’s money.”

As the times develop, information technology is increasingly commonly used, but formalism has turned up in few new places. Those technologies should have made it easier to do work and innovate have become burdens. They’ve introduced app download targets, some have hassled stay-behind old people who can’t use smartphones to download apps. Some cadres have a few dozen work chat-groups, they have an “avoid trouble model”, but they cant escape life.

Some departments spend more than half their budget on A4 paper; there’s a cadre who hasn’t graduated for long, he’s got a 128G memory card, full of photos. No matter if it’s old or new, Chairman Mao’s comment hits the nail on the head: formalism does greater harm. “It’s a childish, low-level, tacky, mindless thing”.

“Grassroots formalism is not fundamentally from the grassroots, it’s handed down from on high. I spent seven years as a farmer, the biggest take-away is that when ordinary people see a cadre they know whether he’s real or not, ordinary people are afraid of no content, doing nothing real.” Formalism’s danger we know, we are clear on it’s appearance, but why it is always coming back? Xi Jinping hits the nail on the head: “to rectify formalism, bureaucratism, the top leader needs to take responsibility”.

From this years’ revelations of classic cases, formalism, bureaucratism, its rampant in some places, units, and departments. In these places, units, departments, it’s connected with the leaders, especially the big leader, this year, in a rare event, a circular criticized a deputy governor cadre who did formalism, and this study group has written about this case in a recent piece. He painted the walls white in a poverty county, and planned to spend RMB 600,000 on “lifting out of poverty” propaganda movie. A local farmer said it right, “they came to paint white walls four times, doesn’t this cost money?”

There are also some cadres, they pervert senior/junior relationships as one way of displaying power. If you don’t leave work, your juniors are not allowed to leave either. Before leaving work, you’ll do an inspection tour of everyone in the office or some will wait till its almost leaving-work time, or at the weekend, and they’ll come up with tasks. If things go on like his, “if the leader doesn’t leave, I can’t leave, it gradually becomes the way of doing things (qian guize), it evolves into wasteful overtime. Deng Xiaoping once noted that when formalism runs amuck, it results in staff “work style becoming superficial, inefficient, and directly influences reform and construction’s smooth progress”.

Our survey found that the large majority of group members detest formalism, but it exists near them, why does formalism still have such a market, it’s like smelly doufu, it smells rotten, but tastes good, it reflects misplaced attitude to political achievement.

First of all, it’s giving up responsibility. “Prefer to arrange mistakes, definitely don’t divulge”, just want to appear to have finished “raising questions’ then it’s OK, whether you’re able to reform, need to reform, that’s what the grassroots cadre needs to think about, even have to regularly send repots up about lightening the grassroots’ burden, and thereby you increase the burden. And lots of grassroots cadres get forced into wasteful overtime, that’s in line with the idea of working hard, but its actually masquerading as hard work, but in the quantitative performance system, cadres can use this as a pretext, to run from responsibility, more common, is all types of “leave-a-mark-ism” (liuhen zhuyi), i.e. the grassroots govern, almost just becomes “box governance” (hezi zhili), everything has an accounting book, things are not important, but the report materials are very thick, some poverty village, they had to make space for a room for the Anti-poverty Struggle accounts. Behind all this, its all about leaving a mark/impression on senior cadres, but in the hearts of the ordinary people, there’s no impression to find, its deviation from our original aspiration (chuxin)

Also, there is issue of political achievements (zhengji). “The success doesn’t have to be mine” ought to be the Party cadres’ bottom-line, but there’s a limit on office terms, and formalism doesn’t need as much time, it’s easy to make up “political achievements, lots of officials make a move, for instance, a village specially invited a retired teacher from a party school to dress up and make [its reports] elegant, the result was that the village was first place in the district, it was the best result in that village’s history. One fallen district party sectary, he went to the poverty village but didn’t go into any homes, he took business people to see projects, used all his energy and funds on high-end projects.

Doing formalism is safe, real innovation carries risks. When it did its investigations in the grassroots, the SSG found a weird thing. A cadre doing compensation for demolished home (chaiqian anzhi) got talked about all over the city, but because he dared to confront and offend quite a few people, he was followed, threatened, and reported. In the eyes of the leaders, he was an able cadre, but he was also a “create trouble” kind of person. To promote him is like having a bomb next to you which can go off at any time. “When it comes to promoting him, leaders are certain to think twice.”

And there the missive ends. It is ironic in the extreme that the piece ends admitting that good cadres are doomed to never be promoted and that the system is therefore broken. Here’s the Chinese:



表现:低级、幼稚、无用功、浪费钱 我们说形式主义是个顽疾,是因为党的发展历史中一直都有它的影子。 在革命战争时期,井冈山斗争“八月失败”后,毛泽东在给中共中央的报告中严厉批评了当时湖南省委代表杜修经“不察当时环境”“只知形式地执行湖南省委的命令”,给湘赣两省根据地斗争造成严重损失,“其错误实在非常之大”。 1972年,尼克松访华,有一天气温降到零下,几个“村民”却在路边一直低头下棋,甚至对总统夫妇的到来也无动于衷。尼克松说了一句:“这是安排给我们看的。”周恩来知道后很坦率地对尼克松说:“我们有些做法比较虚假,是形式主义。” 1992年初,邓小平在南巡时严厉地说:“现在有一个问题,就是形式主义多。电视一打开,尽是会议。会议多,文章太长,讲话也太长,而且内容重复,新的语言并不很多。重复的话要讲,但要精简。形式主义也是官僚主义。”




根源 “基层的形式主义,根源不在下面,而是上行下效……我当了7年农民,最大体会就是老百姓看干部就看实在不实在,老百姓就怕空洞无物、不干实事。”









办法 “上面千条线,下面一根针”,很多形式主义问题,占用基层干部大量时间、耗费大量精力,这种状况必须改变! ——习近平