A rambunctious girl with a fondness for drawing and robots, Jessica Cherry looks like a typical 5-year-old. But in the eyes of the Chinese government she is invisible.

Though her Scottish father obtained a British passport for the child, the government regards her as Chinese, as she was born in Beijing to a Chinese mother. Because her parents did not get a mandatory birth permit, it is practically impossible for Jessica to acquire a Chinese passport and other documents that define citizenship here. That has forced her family to obtain a special “exit-entry permit” each time she leaves China.

The bureaucratic jujitsu usually takes around 50 days, said her mother, Daisy Li, a media producer, who has applied for the permit nine times. “It makes me curse, and it makes me cry,” she said.

China’s bureaucracy has long been a bewildering maze of “relevant departments,” official red-ink seals and stone-faced functionaries. Supplicants ricochet from one government office to another, sometimes across the country, in their quest for the permits needed to get through daily life.

To get a license plate for a new car, for example, a resident of Beijing must win a pass in a lottery in which the odds of success are less than 1 percent. Women often obtain permits allowing them to give birth after they wed, but they usually expire after two years. Unmarried women are ineligible for them. Applying for a student loan can require as many as 26 official sealson more than a dozen documents. Just starting a new job and registering for public benefits can mean amassing a small mountain of documents, including a certified background check by the police in one’s place of birth. And no, you cannot get that by mail.

As its ranks grow, China’s middle class – wired, ambitious and worldly – is increasingly unwilling to tolerate such obstacles, the vestiges of a capricious Mao-era bureaucracy that still holds sway over most of the important aspects of people’s personal lives.

For many educated city dwellers, it is red tape, more than news media censorship and heavy-handed propaganda, that serves as a grinding reminder of the Communist Party’s dominion over their lives.

“The government isn’t there to make our lives easier,” Ms. Li said. “They’ve set up all those rules so the people are easier to control.”

Analysts say such frustrations feed public discontent at a time when the party is trying to bolster its appeal by combating corruption, promising a more reliable legal system and vowing to ease the constraints on small businesses. Party media this week promoted an account of President Xi Jinping’s years as a local leader that highlighted his motto for cutting through bureaucracy in government: “Deal with it instantly.”

Keeping the middle class happy, China’s leaders have come to realize, is also vital for the party’s long-term survival. Concerns about potential social unrest starting within the urban elite are not far-fetched.

Last year, for example, the authorities jailed a number of prominent legal activists after they organized a grass-roots campaign, the New Citizens Movement, that used litigation, social media and public rallies to demand civil rights and government transparency.

Aware of the public’s mounting exasperation, the government has gradually eased some restrictions. Yet, like recent changes to the country’s so-called one-child policy, they come with additional reams of paperwork. One well-traveled joke suggests that approval for a second child takes so long to obtain that couples should begin applying before they conceive — or else the baby might arrive first.

Minxin Pei, an expert on Chinese politics at Claremont McKenna College in California, described the nation’s bureaucracy as a time-tested mechanism for social and political control, one that functions as “an unmovable layer insulating the top leader from popular pressure.”

“In China, after you go through the red tape, you often don’t get an outcome or an explanation,” he said. “The system is designed to allow bureaucrats to do nothing and get away with it.” Continue Reading >>

Written by DAN LEVIN for The New York Times on March 13, 2015.