On page 99 of my dissertation, I end a section that traces a series of Chinese newspaper reports on a pregnant woman’s long-winded quest for the so-called “birth permit.” It is then followed by a new section that reflects on how the media represents her experience as a sign of bad bureaucracy.
There is very little novelty in complaining about bureaucratic red tape in China. Yet, I was compelled to create a whole dissertation chapter titled “Documentation and Its Bureaucratic Discontents” for the following three reasons. First, the pregnant woman’s story was just one example of countless media reports that raised the “documentation difficulty” issue at the time. If frustration about bureaucratic paperwork is old news, why was the media churning out this old news at that specific moment? Second, Chinese news media would normally avoid directly criticizing the Party-State government. Then how and why were the media openly criticizing the bureaucracy in these reports? Third, I wanted to understand the implications of problematizing documentation issues as specifically a bureaucratic failing. Provided that these legal documents are consequential for urban lives well beyond the realm of bureaucratic spheres, what discourse and practices does such problematization enable and/or foreclose?
Page 99 addresses the second question by underlining how the Chinese media, which strives to meet demands from both the Party-State and the commercialized media market, “assumes itself to be the mediator between the state and the public” (p. 99). Ultimately, this chapter argues that this role is one reason why the media is able to criticize the bureaucracy: by domesticating documentation practices as sites of bureaucratic reform, it creates the representation of a nation-state that is moving forward. In doing so, the media “mediates the imagination and legitimacy of the state and its bureaucracy” (p.99).
Overall, I do not think page 99 meets Ford’s test. My dissertation traces how people speak of and handle the banal and copious evidentiary documents (for example, ID card, certificates, and permits) in their everyday lives. In doing so, it demonstrates how such documents critically condition people’s mobility and their understanding of urban citizenship in contemporary China. Even though page 99 maps out key discourses through the lens of institutionalized media, it does not leave space to consider how such institutionalized discourses might unfold in the realm of everyday speech and practices. In fact, most of what became page 99 of the dissertation was written before my extended dissertation fieldwork.
Dodom Kim. 2022. Documenting Uncertainty: Bureaucratic Evidence, Media Practice, and Migrant Citizenship in Southern China. University of Chicago, PhD.