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The Ubiquitous Role of the Mishu in Chinese Politics

  • Wei Li and Lucian W. Pye

Important and busy people in all societies rely upon aides, assistants, staff associates, factotums, lackeys and personal servants, and it is no different in China. What is distinctive is the diffuse and all-purpose character of the Chinese mishu, literally “secret book” but usually translated as “secretary.” A mishu, however, is actually someone with both far broader and more personally intimate responsibilities and powers than this term suggests. Any Chinese shouzhang (leader or head) of significance will have numerous mishus, personal and/or organizational, in his service. In China's political arena there are around one million people who claim the title of mishu, and who, in shielding, guiding and doing the bidding of their masters, give a distinctive character to the political process. Mishus operate with considerable authority not just at the pinnacles of power, as aides do in most countries, but from top to bottom of both the Party and state hierarchies. Therefore, to understand how political relationships operate, how communications flow and how authority is asserted in the ranks of Chinese officialdom it is necessary to appreciate the ubiquitous role of the mishu.

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1. Ruixin, Xu et al. , Zhongguo xiandai mishu gongzuo jichu (The Essentials of Contemporary Chinese Mishu Profession) (Beijing: Gaodeng jiaoyu chubanshe, 1989), p. 178. The preface was written by Deng Yingchao. The figure of a million mishus is not inconsistent with China's enormous Party and state bureaucracies which number around 30 million officials, according to the PRC official statistics. See Huai, Yan, Zhongguo dalu zhengzhi tizhi qiantan (Understanding the Political System of Contemporary China) (Somerset, NJ: Papers of the Center for Modern China, 1991), p. 23. Yan Huai was director of the Research Institute of Organization and Personnel of the CCPCC Organization Department.

2. It is of course true that in other countries such as the United States aides of high officials also use the name of their office to assert authority which is not properly theirs. The difference, however, is that the principals do meet regularly and freely. What makes the summer gatherings of China's leaders at Beidaihe, and in the Mao years at Lushan, so notable is that they rarely meet face-to-face in Beijing during the rest of the year.

3. Technically Bao Tong was the mishu to the Politburo standing committee, but in practice he worked for Zhao Ziyang and was the major force behind Zhao's reforms. He became the primary scapegoat for his fallen master, being tried and sentenced to seven years in prison. (The New York Times, 21 07 1992, p. 3.)

4. As his trusted long-time mishu, Wang Ruilin accompanied Deng in his exile in Jiangxi during the Cultural Revolution, and is now director of Deng's personal mishu office.

5. Pin, He and Xin, Gao, “‘Zong shejishi’ de xiao erduo: Deng Rong chongdang Deng Xiaoping de zhengzhi lianluo yuan” (“The little ears of the ‘general architect’: Deng Rong as Deng Xiaoping's political liaison officer”), Zhongguo shibao zhoukan (China Times Weekly), American edition, No. 23 (1992), pp. 1517.

6. “Beijing zhengju anliu xiongyong: lao Deng nanxun butong xunchang” (“The turbulent undercurrents in the politics of Beijing: the unusual significance of Deng Xiaoping's trip to south China”), Ziyou xinwen daobao (Press Freedom Guardian), 6 03 1992, p. 2.

7. Pin, He, “Fengsheng heli gao gaige” (“Waging reforms with a fear of dangers lurking everywhere”), Zhongguo zhi chun (China Spring), No. 110 (1992), p. 27.

8. The system of political aides which comes closest is that of the Japanese hisho, whose kanji characters are the same as for mishu. Japanese politicians will help their hisho in becoming the next generation of politicians so that at any time nearly one third of the Diet members are former hisho. Hishos also serve in the ministries. But there is a critical difference in that the strong civil service tradition means that a Japanese politician cannot place his hisho in a high bureaucratic post, as is routinely done in China where the separation of Party and state bureaucracies is not rigidly enforced. The crossing of career lines from civil servant to politician differs from country to country. The transition from bureaucrat to politician happens frequently in Japan, less so in post-de Gaulle France, and rarely elsewhere in Europe. In China the mishits advance according to the power of their shouzhangs and are not constrained by laws and administrative regulations as civil servants are elsewhere.

9. Yanchi, Quan, Zouxia shengtan de Mao Zedong (The Mao Zedong off the Altar) (Beijing: Zhongwai wenhua chuban gongsi, 1989), p. 1.

10. Xinghan, Zheng, Dangzheng jiguan mishu gongzuo gaishu (An Outline of Mishu Work in Party and State Organs) (Beijing; Dangan chubanshe, 1990), p. 62. This book is one of the 14 volumes in Dang zheng jiguan mishu gongzuo congshu (A Series of Books on Mishu Work in Party and State Organs), which were all written by mishus in the general mishu offices of Heilongjiang, Liaoning, Hebei, Tianjin, Beijing and Shanxi.

11. The book by Xu Ruixin et al. is based on the authors' lectures at the CCP Central Party School.

12. Zhongguo zhengfu gongzuo gaiyao (An Outline of the Work of the Chinese Government) (Beijing: Zhonggong zhongyang dangxiao chubanshe, 1991), p. 213. Also see Zhifeng, Jiang, Wangpai chujingde Zhongnanhai qiaoju (The Last Card of the Game of Zhongnanhai) (San Francisco, CA: Minzhu zhongguo shulin chubanshe, 1990), p. 143. The author was a mishu for central leaders in China and has been in exile abroad since the Tiananmen incident of 1989. The book devotes a chapter to the role of mishus in Chinese politics and almost all its basic assertions have been corroborated by other PRC sources we have consulted.

13. The assigned responsibilities of organizational mishus do mean they have to work personally for the individual leaders. Thus, according to an authoritative listing of the specific tasks of organizational mishus, they are expected: to look after work environment and personal life of leaders in terms of housing, transport, food, health care, recreation, office supplies and equipment, etc.; to pass down leaders' instructions, and supervise or carry out tasks assigned by leaders; to co-ordinate working and interpersonal relationships among leaders, between leaders and subordinate departments, and among the departments; to process and handle all incoming documents; to draft, edit and censor all outgoing documents and publications; to organize conferences and arrange leaders' activities; to collect, process, and synthesize information and provide policy options or suggestions for leaders; to maintain safety, security and confidentiality; and to receive and accommodate official visitors. Zhonghua renmin gongheguo sheng zizhiqu zhixiashi dangzheng qu jiguan zuzhi gaiyao (An Outline of Organization and Functions of the Provinces, Autonomous Regions, and Directly-Governed Municipalities of the People's Republic of China), compiled by Division of Organization of Local Governments, Personal Department of the State Council, Beijing: Zhongguo renshi chubanshe, 1989, pp. 5, 15.

14. Hongbin, Chen et al. , Jianming mishu gongzuo shouce (The Concise Handbook of Mishu Profession) (Shenyang: Liaoning jiaoyu chubanshe, 1967), p. 61.

15. Ibid. p. 57.

16. It should be pointed out that Chinese mishu authors display a strong inclination to count as a mishu anyone who provides some service, important or not, directly to a shouzhang, as if mishu were a highly enviable title in itself. This tendency greatly exaggerates the number of mishus who play a significant part in the Chinese political process. One author even claims that the number of mishus is “close to ten million.” (Xinghan, Zheng, An Outline of Mishu Work, p. 90.) So far as policy-making and implementation are concerned, however, such types as “political mishus,” “writing mishus,” “foreign affairs mishus,” “administrative mishus,” “director of a mishu office,” and a few others are, of course, politically much more important than the mishus who are essentially personal servants and attendants.

17. The general pattern is that the higher up a shouzhang is, the greater the number of his personal mishus and the greater the degree of division of labour and specialization among them; conversely, the lower the rank of a shouzhang is, the fewer mishus he possesses and the more diffuse are their roles.

18. Zhongxun, Xi, “Wei zuo hao mishu gongzuo shuo jiju hua” (“Some remarks on how to carry out mishu work well”), in Lingdao tongzhi tan mishu gongzuo (The Remarks by Leading Comrades on Mishu Work) (Beijing: Xiandai chubanshe, 1989), p. 18.

19. Zhande, Wang et al. , Gongwen zhuanxie yu hegao (How to Draft and Edit a Document) Beijing: Dang'an chubanshe, 1990), p. 23.

20. Peiwen, Qi et al. , Zenyang danghao lingdaoren mishu (How to Be a Good Personal Mishu for a Leader) (Beijing: Dang'an chubanshe, 1990), pp. 1112.

21. Ibid. pp. 41–42.

22. Xinghan, Zheng, An Outline of Mishu Work, p. 76.

23. Peiwen, Qi, How to Be a Good Personal Mishu, p. 184.

24. Ibid. p. 14.

25. Shaozu, Wu, “Shouzhang mishu gongzuo zongheng tan” (“Extensive observations on a mishu's work for a shouzhang”), in Lingdao tongzhi tan mishu gongzuo (The Remarks by Leading Comrades on Mishu Work) (Beijing: Xiandai chubanshe, 1989), p. 115. The author used to be a mishu of Wang Zhen, vice-president of the PRC.

26. Zhande, Wang, How to Draft and Edit a Document, pp. 116–17.

27. Ibid. p. 23.

28. Ibid. p. 19.

29. Ibid. p. 24.

30. Ibid. p. 26.

31. Ibid. p. 22.

32. Ibid. p. 24.

33. Ruixin, Xu, The Essentials, p. 136.

34. Zhande, Wang, How to Draft and Edit a Document, p. 22.

35. Ibid. p. 19.

36. Ibid. p. 25.

37. Ibid. pp. 18–19.

38. Ibid. pp. 26–27.

39. Ibid. p. 20.

40. Ibid. p. 124.

41. Hongbin, Chen, The Concise Handbook, p. 72.

42. Hua, Cheng (ed.), Zhou Enlai he tade mishumen (Zhou Enlai and his Mishus) (Beijing: Zhongguo guangbo dianshi chubanshe, 1992), p. 5.

43. Peiwen, Qi, How to Be a Good Personal Mishu, p. 198.

44. Pin, He, “Waging reforms with a fear of dangers lurking everywhere,” p. 27.

45. Peiwen, Qi, How to Be a Good Personal Mishu, p. 47; Fangzhi, Wang et al. , Wenjian shoufa yu chuli (How to Receive, Dispatch, and Process Documents (Beijing: Dang'an chubanshe, 1990), p. 78.

46. Shizhong, Song et al. , Chaban gongzuo (How to Investigate and Handle a Case) (Beijing: Dang'an chubanshe, 1990), pp. 1617.

47. Rui, Hou, Zenyang dang bangongshi zhuren (How to Work as Director of a Mishu Office) (Beijing: Dang'an chubanshe, 1990), pp. 6667.

48. Ibid.

49. Ibid. p. 22.

50. Peiwen, Qi, How to Be a Good Personal Mishu, p. 149.

51. Xinghan, Zheng, An Outline of Mishu Work, p. 79.

52. Chengjie, Yi et al. , Zhengwu jieqia yu lingdao huodong anpai (How to Receive Official Visitors and Arrange Leaders' Activities) (Beijing: Dang'an chubanshe, 1990), p. 58.

53. Peiwen, Qi, How to Be a Good Personal Mishu, pp. 147–48.

54. Ibid. p. 157.

55. Ibid. pp. 158–59.

56. It would seem that the main responsibility of Mao's bodyguard was in fact to keep him from unplanned meetings with people. Li Yinqiao, Mao's security mishu for 15 years, tells of how angry and frustrated Mao would get from being cooped up and denied any chance to meet people because of the way he was always shielded by his squads of bodyguards. Li also noted how few friendly, human relationships Mao ever had, even among his political colleagues: “In 15 years at Mao Zedong's side, I never heard him say one sentence to Zhou Enlai that went beyond comradely relations to mention private feelings.” See Yanchi, Quan, Zouxia shentan de Mao Zedong (Mao Zedong off the Altar) (Beijing: Zhongwai wenhua chuban gongsi, 1989), p. 161.

57. Ruixin, Xu, The Essentials, p. 137.

58. Ibid.

59. Shaozu, Wu, “Extensive observations,” p. 111.

60. Qiangong, Wang et al. , Shiyong mishu gongzuo shouce (A Practical Handbook for Mishu Work) (Beijing: Guangming ribao chubanshe, 1987), p. 85.

61. Ruixin, Xu, The Essentials, pp. 131, 141.

62. Hongbin, Chen, The Concise Handbook, p. 59.

63. Zhifeng, Jiang, The Last Card, p. 144.

64. According to our contact, who was a long-time mishu to one of the commanders.

65. Yunsheng, Zhang, Maojiawan jishi: Lin Biao mishu huiyi lu (The Eyewitness Accounts of Maojiawan: The Memoirs of Lin Biao's Mishu (Beijing: Chunqiu chubanshe, 1988), pp. 1213.

66. Ibid. pp. 230–31.

67. Qingshan, Lin, Lin Biao zhuan (A Biography of Lin Biao) (Beijing: Zhishi chubanshe, 1988), p. 492. The author used to be an instructor in philosophy at the CCP Central Party School.

68. Shaozu, Wu, “Extensive observations,” p. 118.

69. Xianzhi, Pang, “Mao Zedong he tade mishu Tian Jiaying” (“Mao Zedong and his mishu Tian Jiaying”), in Bian, Dong et al. (eds.), Mao Zedong he tade mishu Tian Jiaying (Mao Zedong And His Mishu Tian Jiaying) (Beijing: Zhongyang wenxian chubanshe, 1989), p. 66. The author is a former mishu of Mao. The editor is the widow of Mao's mishu, Tian Jiaying. The other contributors include Yang Shangkun and Hu Qiaomu.

70. Ibid. p. 83.

71. Yaxin, Peng “Tian Jiaying xiaozhuan” (“A short biography of Tian Jiaying”), in Bian, Dong et al. , Mao Zedong And His Mishu Tian Jiaying, p. 329.

72. Zhifeng, Jiang, The Last Card, pp. 144–45.

73. Ibid.

74. Ibid.

75. Ibid.

76. Chinese authors emphasize the fact that Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping both once worked as mishus. Deng Yingchao, Zhou Enlai's widow, observed: “Comrades Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Ren Bishi, Qu Qiubai, among the late revolutionary leaders of the first generation, and Comrade Deng Xiaoping, of the current leadership, have not only made numerous important instructions on how mishu work should be carried out, but they have also worked as mishus themselves, being the founders of our Party's mishu work style and setting examples for us.” Yingchao, Deng, “Mishu renyuan bixu zhongcheng dang de shiye” (“Mishu personnel must be loyal to the Party's cause”), in Lingdao tongzhi tan mishu gongzuo (The Remarks by Leading Comrades on Mishu Work), compiled by the editing board for Mishu Work (Beijing: Xiandai chubanshe, 1989), p. 6. Mao has been hailed as “the very first mishu in the history of the Chinese Communist Party,” since he was the mishu for the first National Congress of the CCP in 1921. Deng served as the mishu zhang (general mishu) for the CCPCC for a long time.

77. They were Boda, Chen, Qiaomu, Hu, Zilong, Ye, Qing, Jiang and Jiaying, Tian, Zhi, Kao, “Jiang Qing wo zhineng guan bange” (“I can only control half of Jiang Qing”), in Yanchi, Quan (ed.), Lingxiu lei (The Leader's Tears) (Beijing: Qiushi chubanshe, 1989), p. 94. The author was Mao's confidential mishu.

78. Although Jiang was Mao's wife personally, her official position for a long time was his administrative-cum-confidential mishu.

79. Qiangong, Wang, A Practical Handbook, p. 91.

80. Hebin, Wang, Ziyun xuan zhuren: wo suo jiechu de Mao Zedong (The Master of the Purple Cloud Compound: Mao Zedong I Knew) (Beijing: Zhonggong zhongyang dangxiao chubanshe, 1991), p. 37. The author was Mao's medical care and administrative mishu.

81. Zhonghua renmin gongheguo dang zheng jun qun lingdaoren minglu (Who's Who in the Party, Army, Government, Popular Organizations of the People's Republic of China) (Beijing: Zhonggong dangshi chubanshe, 1990).

82. Ruixin, Xu, The Essentials, pp. 133–34.

83. Premier Zhou Enlai is often cited as the shining example for this practice. Xiaoying, Zhen, Zhou Enlai: jianchi dangxing de kaimo (Zhou Enlai: The Shining Example for Upholding the Party Spirit) (Beijing: Zhonggong zhongyang dangxiao chubanshe, 1989), p. 159.

84. Yinqiao, Li, Zouxia shentan de Mao Zedong (Mao Zedong off the Altar) (Shanxi: Zhongwai wenhua chuban gongsi, 1989), pp. 267–68.

85. Shaozu, Wu, “Extensive observations,” p. 112.

86. Yunsheng, Zhang, The Eyewitness Accounts, p. 3.

87. These arrangements also enable shouzhangs' children to jump directly to top positions of the bureaucracy upon leaving the personal service of other shouzhangs without having to rise grade-by-grade through the normal channels. Zhifeng, Jiang, The Last Card, p. 145.

88. Yunsheng, Zhang, The Eyewitness Accounts, p. 21.

89. Yonglie, Ye, Zhang Chunqiao chenfu lu (The Rise and Fall of Zhang Chunqiao) (Hong Kong: South China Press, 1989), pp. 184–89. Ye Yonglie is a renowned PRC writer and perhaps the best biographer of the Gang of Four and Chen Boda in China.

90. Yaxin, Peng, “A short biography of Tian Jiaying,” p. 325. In the years immediately after Lushan, Tian quietly worked to pull Mao away from his more radical policies. Thus as the campaign about the play The Dismissal of Hai Rui from Office heated up, Jiaying, Tian “In editing Mao's speech courageously left out the remarks about Peng Dehuai.” Zhiying, Dong (ed.), Mao Zedong yishi (Anecdotes About Mao Zedong) (Beijing: Kunlun chubanshe, 1989), p. 129. Tian also “repeatedly suggested to Mao… that Chen Yun be restored to taking charge of the economy.” Yaxin, Peng, “A short biography of Tian Jiaying,” p. 324. He even went as far as to propose to Mao, at Liu Shaoqi's request, that they should adopt Chen Yun's policy to “assign production quotas to individual households.” Tian “knew that it was risky to make such a proposal, but he brushed his personal safety aside and made up his mind to offer advice to Chairman Mao in his capacity as a mishu.” After hearing his suggestion, Mao's suspicion was aroused immediately, so he asked: “Is this your own view or the view of some other people?” Xianzhi, Pang, “Mao Zedong and his mishu Tian Jiaying,” pp. 6768. According to his posthumous admirers, Tian “never admitted that he had been asked by Liu Shaoqi to make the suggestion, nor did he put the blame on the comrades who had done the investigation down below.” Zhiying, Dong, Anecdotes About Mao Zedong, p. 129.

91. Ruihuan, Li, Wei renmin ban shi shi suitan (Casual Remarks by Li Ruihuan While Doing Substantial Things for the People) (Tianjin: Baihua wenyi chubanshe, 1990), p. 813.

92. Ruixin, Xu, The Essentials, p. 138.

93. Bai, Mei, “Bu yao mishu can zheng” (“Don't let mishus take part in politics”), in Simin, Guo (ed.), Wo yan zhong de Mao Zedong (The Mao Zedong I Saw) (Shijiazhuang: Hebei renmin chubanshe, 1990), p. 85. Mao knew how to put a mishu in his place. When Chen Boda accompanied Mao as his political mishu to Moscow to meet Stalin, he offended Mao by overstepping the bounds of his role. At one of the meetings Chen Boda engaged in animated small talk with Stalin and they toasted to each other, leaving Mao on the sidelines. Mao later punished Chen by barring him from participating in the next meeting and by refusing to grant him leave to spend nights with his son, who was studying in Moscow. Yonglie, Ye, Chen Boda qi ren (A Biography of Chen Boda) (Changchun: Shidai wenyi chubanshe, 1990), pp. 151–53.

94. Chen Boda admitted that the term “people's commune” was first coined and expounded by himself in his article “Quanxin de shehui, quanxin de ren” (“A totally new society, a totally new people”), Hongqi (Red Flag), No. 3, 07 1958. Chen's article was a month earlier than Mao's notorious slogan “People's commune is good,” and Mao once explained that “People's commune was not invented by me.” Yonglie, Ye, A Biography of Chen Boda, pp. 181–83.

95. Ruixin, XuThe Essentials, p. 179.

96. Xinghan, ZhengAn Outline of Mishu Work, p. 159.

97. Peiwen, Qi, How to Be a Good Personal Mishu, pp. 216229.

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