the power of faxing protocols

Finding out what is happening within the Shenzhen government is difficult not only because of censorship restrictions, but also because of protocols regulating the circulation of “documents (文件)”. Specifically, no documents are are sent virtually. Instead, documents are faxed from Beijing or Guangzhou to a centralized distribution center in the Shenzhen government that receives the faxed documents, makes copies, and then delivers them to relevant ministries and bureaus. This protocol follows for lower-ranking governments as well, so Shenzhen faxes to its constituent Districts which in turn fax to their Street Offices. There are, of course, different levels of government faxes. Some are simply copies of directives or activities, while others are actually official policy and require stamps (such as the copy of a Sichuan document, above).

The work of faxing involves standing at a machine, scanning documents, and making sure the sent receipt is attached to each document before filing. The work of receiving a fax entails receiving the fax, dating the time of receipt, making copies for relevant offices, and then delivering the faxes. Fax office workers are gatekeepers, who unlike any other functionary (in theory) have access to all the documents that come into and leave a government building (including schools and hospitals). Fax office workers are, however, low-ranking and thus operate within and against power and vulnerabilities of an unwieldy bureuacracy that runs on outdated technology. Indeed, as it will become clear from the following comments, there is an institutional necessity both to be nice to fax office workers and to keep them in their place.

The use of faxes, rather than digital technology, within the Chinese government has important repercussions for the organization of relationships within the government as well as between government bureaus and social institutions.

  • First, faxing means that all official documents are material and not virtual files, even if the content of a document was prepared on a computer. Faxing thus not only reinforces the hierarchy of written and virtual information, but also imbues this distinction with the force of law;
  • Second, faxing documents allows for the circuits themselves to be documented through the receipts that are produced after a document has been sent. Faxing thus not only maintains the importance of “paperwork” to the definition and functioning of government, but also strengthens control and regulation of information;
  • Third, within the government apparatus, faxing protocols not only maintain hierarchy through structured access to information, but also differences between ministries because an office only receives relevant information, rather than all information. This means that functionaries in another office must visit “friends” in other offices in order to learn what is happening within that branch of government;
  • Fourth, any institution outside of designated faxing circuits must send a representative to the relevant office in order to pick up copies of documents. Faxing thus necessitates meetings between “officials” and “ordinary people”, each of which affirms the power of the government (and its representatives) vis-a-vis society through daily rituals and (more often then not) power plays of groveling and bribes.

So there’s a point du jour: faxing protocols not only maintain the distinction between the government and society, but also reinforce hierarchy the government itself because the government officials who receive faxes operate as gatekeepers with privileged access to information.

Here’s a second, less obvious point du jour: faxing protocols further separate the government from society because society (民间) uses digital technology to conduct business, create alternative communities, and maintain emotional connections, begging the question: have faxing protocols become an explicit technology of governance and the work of legitimating inequality? Inquiring minds also want to know: what are the relationships between virtual communities and communities of one’s word (or in Mandarin speech that counts 说话算数) in the formation of civil societies?

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