Ghostwriters Unlimited

February 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

… is the amount in yuan, the equivalent of about £10, that will buy you 1,000 words of ghostwritten brilliance if, like many nailbiting Chinese white-collar workers at this time of year, you need a tautly crafted comedy sketch in a hurry.

China’s online scribes-for-hire have become an established cottage industry at about the same pace that e-commerce generally has soared. The first generation of Chinese ghostwriters are attuned to domestic academic demands and cheerfully will create everything from a high-school essay to a master’s degree thesis on your behalf. The quality is entirely dependent on the fee, one web-based agency said.

But the oddities of seasonal demand in China have produced a new sub-set of the ghostwriter genre. In the past, the run-up to Chinese new year (which falls in late January) involved tortured weeks of writer’s block and frazzled nerves as employees sweated over their offering for the office party.

What is called for is either a tasteful speech or, sometimes, a short play that entertains an audience of colleagues with gentle references to people in the workplace. For many, the challenge of getting the balance just right is too onerous and the new breed of ghostwriters are only a mouse-click away.

“We know what we’re doing,” the manager of a ghostwriting agency in Shanghai said. “All we need is your co-operation and full details on what you need. If you’re not happy, we’ll keep revising it free of charge until you are.”

Increasingly, Chinese office workers have spotted that there is another annual chore ripe for the outsourcing: the writing of the year-end report and self-assessment for one’s superiors. Unlike the script of the play for an office party, the contents of the year-end report conceivably could be fairly sensitive and involve corporate secrets. But that has not stood in the way and the ghostwriters have again jumped in with elegant, low-priced prose.

The interesting thing about the ghostwriters is where they can be found. They are yet another facet of China’s still-tiny services industry that has sprung to life not only on the internet but also on Taobao — one of China’s colossal open-to-all-comers online trading platforms that is changing the structure of domestic commerce more rapidly than any top-down efforts to reshape it.

Few would have much difficulty believing that China is, at heart, a mercantile society, but Taobao is where the animal spirits are truly allowed out to play. The companies that have emerged on Taobao are not like the hundreds of thousands that emerged to meet the needs of foreign buyers; they are what happens when the country’s innate mercantilism is unleashed by the Chinese for the Chinese. These are early days, and the vast majority of Taobao’s innovative energy is directed solely at flogging goods online, but next it will be channelled to services and then into ideas. China may be years from evolving its own Apple, but Taobao could be where the seeds are sown.

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