Encountering officials is inevitable in many research projects in China. The encounter itself shows a snapshot of how local officialdom works. Being rejected by the officials, being unable to find the officials during office hours, being passing like a ball from one office to another, and being scolded or humiliated were normal occurrences for ordinary people in dealing with local officials. ‘In a meeting’ was a frequently named excuse by officials to avoid unwelcome visits. Encountering Chinese officials thus put challenge on researchers to get needed information, to interpret meanings behind words, and to explore complex relationships behind certain phenomenon. But the encounter itself constitutes a significant part of the research ‘field’. This post proposes carefully reflecting the laborious process of encountering government bureaus and officials to deepen our understanding of the local social world, writes Jiong Tu.
My PhD project explores people’s moral experience of health care transformations over the past decades in a county in eastern Sichuan, China. In the field from 2011 to 2012, I met many patients and health professionals through acquaintances’ introductions without much difficulty. People sincerely shared with me their concerns and worries as health care increasingly became a troubling issue. I also interviewed dozens of health administrators and officials in order to get a view from within the structure of the authority with respect to the health policy agenda and administration. Perhaps because I went back to my ‘hometown’ for fieldwork and my topic is not politically sensitive, I experienced neither intervention that many western researchers encountered in China (such as that depicted in an earlier post of this blog by Lisa Richaud), nor the fear and scare depicted in Mayfair Yang’s fieldwork in Beijing (Yang 2004) and in Yunpeng Zhang’s fieldwork in Shanghai (see this previous post here). But my encounters with local officials were frequently disturbing, dramatic and sometimes humiliating.
Politics at the bottom of bureaucratic structure
In 2009 when I first did my master thesis research in the county, I naively went directly to local health office to ask for some data. There I was ruthlessly rejected by the officers, who responded to me in a scolding tone that I did not know even the basic social rule. ‘How could you come directly to a government office to ask for information?’ they responded. They said that I should at least ask some acquaintance to make a reference call to them, or else how could they know who I actually was, even though I had showed them my student card and a reference letter from university. As a native who spoke local dialect and appeared to be just an ordinary local young person, they simply rejected me. That time I did not get any information. The encounter several years ago gave me a lesson how I ‘should’ interact with government officials in a conservative interior county.
When I did research in this county again in 2011, I always tried to find some acquaintance to introduce me to local health administrators and officials. With the introduction of a reliable acquaintance, many administrators and officials appeared to be kind, sincere and outspoken during interview. Some of them further introduced me to their subordinates. Even so, I still met many obstacles in interacting with officials. Continue reading