'But there is another, largely invisible mechanism of social control that governs hundreds of millions of urban residents: the dang’an, or personal file, that documents matters mundane and profane. The dossiers start with a citizen’s middle-school grades, whether they play well with others and, as they become adults, list their religious affiliations, psychological problems and perceived political liabilities.
'Sealed inside tawny envelopes stamped with the word dang’an in red, the Mao-era system for recording the most intimate details of life is updated by teachers, Communist Party officials and employers. Copies are kept by local archive bureaus, the police or a person’s employer.
'China’s embrace of market economics — and the employment opportunities created by foreign firms and private employers — has diminished the dang’an’s power to derail careers. But for those seeking government work, including positions with state-owned enterprises and banks, an unfavorable dang’an entry can mar one’s job prospects.
'In recent years, corrupt school officials have been caught selling off the files of top students. The buyers: parents of middling students, who assume their identities to apply to college.
'Those whose dang’ans disappear can be thrown into a bureaucratic limbo, disrupting their educational plans and sometimes depriving them of pensions.
'Peering into one’s dang’an, needless to say, is not allowed.
'Four years ago, the Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser, 48, got a chance to look at her file. After she was fired from her job at the state-run Tibetan Literature Association in Lhasa — punishment for writing favorably about the Dalai Lama — Ms. Woeser asked a former colleague to help her get the file released so she could apply for medical insurance and other welfare benefits.
'In a bureaucratic stroke of luck, an official at the association gave the file to Ms. Woeser’s mother.
'“The file was only in my mother’s hands a few days before my work unit began calling in a panic, demanding it back,” she said in an interview in Beijing, where she lives. “My mother was so scared — people of her age usually are afraid of such things — she was almost in tears. I told her to hold on to it.”
'A friend of Ms. Woeser’s, the filmmaker Zhu Rikun, was so intrigued that he hopped on a train for the 45-hour trip to Lhasa. File in hand, he returned to Beijing a few days later and proposed filming Ms. Woeser as she read her file aloud for the first time. The result, a documentary called “The Dossier,” was shown last year at several film festivals outside China.'