The X-files: my adventures with Chinese bureaucracy

This week, I document my journey to unravel the mystery of my missing “file” — or “dang an.” Read it here or on China Daily:

Every adult who attended high school in China has a secret file called a dang an. The file is “secret” because access to it is closely guarded. Yet, the dang an is also not a secret at all.

It’s common knowledge the file is established when you enter high school. From there, it follows you from school to school, job to job, documenting your successes and failures in banal precision (test scores) and subjective detail (employer evaluations). Although the paper dossier looks flimsily unimportant (if you were ever privileged enough to see yours), it carries as much weight in China’s administrative system as the hukou (residency permit). Prospective bosses, teachers and even spouses want to know that your file is in tip-top shape.

Last year, The New York Times profiled the drastic turns of fate that can result from files gone wrong. One interview subject lost his chances at coveted State firm jobs and went to work as a laborer, for $10 a day. So, it was with some alarm that I discovered this year that I don’t have a file, and that I might need one to get things done here. I’m a bit of an administrative anomaly: I never attended high school or worked in China, but I’ve hung onto my Chinese passport for years while living abroad, out of a sentimental nationalism.

As far as the government and national enterprises are concerned, I’m just a regular Jane with a Chinese ID. Everything they need to know about me should be written in my file. What happens when they discover I don’t have one?

The first time someone asked about my file was during a job interview. Things were going well until the conversation moved to hiring logistics. Instead of asking for the standard references and background checks, as per American corporate custom, my Chinese interviewer casually said, “We’ll just diao your dang an” (“pull up your file”).
I hesitantly replied, “I don’t think I have a file.” From there, the prospect of my getting hired this decade dissipated into the over-conditioned air.

Homegrown enterprises, especially State firms, have grown used to hiring expatriates who flash their foreign passports and locals who can prove their trustworthiness with their files. But they have no procedure for assessing a Chinese citizen without a dang an. In that nebulous area between foreign and local, I simply don’t exist. At least, not in a standard paperwork kind of way.

I left the interview feeling a little indignant and very overwhelmed by the prospect of navigating administrative hurdles ahead. Instead of figuring out how to establish a file for myself at this ripe age, I simply buried my head in the sand for a while.

Then, the dang an question came up again two weeks ago. A certain foreign embassy wanted to see a statement from the Chinese police, proving I’ve never engaged in criminal activity here. Since I never have committed a crime, I figured it would be easy.

Alas, nothing is ever so easy. I called my neighborhood police station and was told to find where my file is domiciled (with an employer, a school, or elsewhere), ask that agency issue a letter, and bring it back to the police for the official statement. That’s when I realized that I should bite the bullet and sort out this dang an business once and for all. But how?

I first went to the source of all wisdom – my mother. She also recently moved back to China and had to do some creative maneuvering to be able to work again. I listened half frightened, half awestruck as she recounted her debacles from finding where her file was domiciled (after 18 years away) to standing in a dark basement-level crypt, fingering the dangerously thin pages of her dang an. “There was stuff in there I didn’t even remember about myself,” she said for emphasis.

Interesting story, but it didn’t tell me how to establish a new file and get that police statement. For once, Mom didn’t have the answers to all my questions in life.

Next, I tried working backward, heading to the Public Notary’s office, which would eventually need to translate and certify the police statement once I had it. Standing outside the bland government building marked with imposing gold lettering, I dreaded entering. Memories of disgruntled clerks pounding official seals on paper came back to me from my childhood.

But the office was surprisingly orderly. All I had to do was take a queue number and wait for a public notary to be available. When, at last, I waded through the crowd to present myself, like a guilty school child, to the notary on duty, I was braced to hear a laundry list of confusing instructions for rectifying my file-less status.
The notary, after listening to my timid retelling of the file quagmire, dismissed me with a flourish: “You don’t need that file for a police statement. Go to the police station and ask them to look in your other file.”

Wait? There’s another file? Why didn’t the police say so in the first place?

Disbelieving, I followed the notary’s instructions and went to the police station where my hukou is registered. From there, the police kicked around to a few more public offices. Two weeks later, I was walking out of the notary’s office with stamped, sealed and legitimate police statements in hand.

In the end, I didn’t need to establish a dang an to get what I needed. The grand tally from my adventures with bureaucracy was just three trips to the Public Notary’s office, two trips to the Haidian police station, one trip to a Chaoyang police station, and a lot of time logged on the cross-town subway.
I haven’t quite figured out my luck and the differences between the files I was asked for in the process, but for the time being, I remain happily (perhaps precariously) dang an-less.


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