In many ways, the process of soliciting and providing “written comments” is the whirring machine of the Party-state bureaucracy in China. As they go about the business of governance, officials and their private secretaries (秘书) work hard to get material out for approval by the higher leadership in their jurisdiction and beyond. “Written comments” from a superior official can propel action forward on a given matter, securing that official’s stamp of approval, and they can draw greater attention to policy reports or suggestions, giving them a greater chance of advancing through the system. For some universities and think-tanks in China, “written instructions” on research or a policy proposal at the provincial level or above can be regarded as a major accomplishment, as prestigious as publishing in a core journal.
In their 2016 journal article “Concentrating Power to Accomplish Big Things,” a study of the pishi system, Tsai Wen-Hsuan and Liao Xingmiu write that the influence the system has over the CCP decision-making process is “a manifestation of Deng Xiaoping’s famous maxim: ‘concentrate power to accomplish big things’ (集中力量办大事). The authors write that one of the first views inside the pishi system came in 1989, as former PSC member Hu Qiaomu (胡乔木) gave a speech in the United States called “How China’s Leadership Makes Decisions.” Hu’s speech laid out three basic categories of documents that receive pishi.
The first category can include so-called “work briefs” (工作简报) created by departments and sent to the office of the Party committee, as well as “internal reference documents” (内部参考), reports generated by Party-state media such as the official Xinhua News Agency that are deemed too sensitive to make public. In the second category, reports may actually be commissioned on given topics from policy think-tanks, or may be created by experts on their own and shared with officials. The final category, public correspondence, generally refers to documents generated through the Letters and Calls system (信访), a mechanism by which citizens may seek redress for grievances.