Navigating Bureaucracy and Generating Vulnerability at an Agri-environmental Research Institute

Colloquium | September 10 | 4-6 p.m. | 180 Doe Library

 Tim McLellan, Center for Chinese Studies Postdoctoral Fellow, 2018-2019

 Rachel Stern, Professor, School of Law, UC Berkeley

 Center for Chinese Studies (CCS)

Conducting research in China throws up numerous headaches, from acquiring official invitation letters and securing permissions for field research to navigating the anti-corruption measures that govern the use of research funding. One well-documented strategy for overcoming such challenges is to leverage informal social relationships (guanxi) with government officials to circumvent formal rules and procedures. Equally important, however, is the use of documentary fixes that allow scientists to create the façade of having complied with the appropriate regulations. Based on 24 months participant observation at an agri-environmental research institute – the Institute for Farms and Forests (IFF) – this paper will provide an ethnographic analysis of how scientists confront the challenges of contemporary Chinese bureaucracy. It will describe how, for IFF staff, the need to fictionalize conference attendees—a way of circumventing impossibly restrictive expenditure limitations introduced as part of anti-corruption initiatives—and to fabricate all manner of fixes to impossible rules and regulations is a constant source not only of frustration but of vulnerability. Drawing its analytic approach from IFF colleague’s insights and from anthropological theories of gift exchange, this paper will demonstrate that bureaucratic proceduralism is a mode of sociality that unevenly distributes vulnerability between bureaucrats and their clients.