“The mountains are high and the emperor is far away” (shan gao Huangdi yuan 山高皇帝远)
Foreign Christian workers in far-flung areas of China have often quoted this adage to explain their ability to operate seemingly under the radar, enjoying favor with local officials and engaging with their neighbors in ways that would not be possible in China’s urban areas. Their China stories of daring adventure interweave with the history and customs of these distant provinces that, far from the watchful eyes of leaders in Beijing, have traditionally played by their own set of rules. As the idiom suggests, it is impossible for the government to know what’s happening everywhere. Or is it?
Today China’s officials are much less likely to turn a blind eye toward unauthorized Christian activity. Under the rubric of national security, Xi Jinping has shifted the government’s emphasis from aggressive economic growth to social control. Officials who were once rewarded for enriching their localities are now driven by the fear of making mistakes. Reversing a decades-long trend toward a greater role for state agencies, Xi has restructured the bureaucracy to bring all of Chinese society under the direct leadership of the Party. The advance of the surveillance state gives officials in Beijing visibility into every corner of the country. In this changing political landscape, the mountains have become shorter, and the watchful eyes of the Party are literally everywhere.
For the past 40 years, Deng Xiaoping’s dictum, “to get rich is glorious,” has benefited not only enterprising families in the countryside and migrant workers in China’s factory towns, but also officials whose own fortunes have been tied to the economic growth of the localities where they serve. In addition to the political capital that comes with successfully growing the local economy, officials have also enriched themselves through “gray” income, enjoying access to public funds, kickbacks, special benefits for family members, and other perks such as automobiles or housing. Given these incentives, they have worked hard to maintain their privileged positions.
Now, as one commentator put it, “Times are a-changing. In this new era of ‘centralism, Xi style,’ provinces need to do the center’s bidding of ensuring economic security. In other words, Beijing wants to reset the 不听话 (‘intransigent’) approach that provinces adopted with gusto during the growth imperative era to one where localities are more inclined to 听话 (‘follow orders’).”1
Under the Xi administration, strict anti-corruption measures have not only reduced access to benefits that cadres had previously enjoyed; they have also landed hundreds of thousands in prison. Meanwhile, with the imposition of strict accountability standards more cadres are simply afraid to make decisions, lest things don’t work out well and they are punished for the outcomes. As one popular adage warns, “The more you do, the more mistakes you will make” (duozuo duocuo 多做多错).2
Many local leaders have welcomed the expertise and resources of Christians from more developed areas or from abroad. Today, however, officials facing greater scrutiny from above are less likely to take a gamble on outsiders who may be more of a liability than an asset, particularly given the assumption that foreigners in China constitute a security risk (which prompted one American English teacher to begin his first day in class by declaring to his students, “I am not a spy.”).3 Meanwhile, as we shall see in our next installment, China’s changing bureaucratic structures have further politicized the spaces in which foreign Christians might otherwise serve, and its sprawling surveillance system means that nobody is beyond the reach of the state.
- Ruihan Huang, “Beijing’s New Regulatory State Is Being Built One Tool at a Time,” Marco Polo, July 11, 2023, Accessed October 9, 2023, https://macropolo.org/beijing-regulatory-state-one-tool-at-a-time/?rp=m.
- Wei Chen, Shu Keng, and Siyi Zhang, “China’s Bureaucratic Slack: Material Inducements and Decision-Making Risks among Chinese Local Cadres,” The China Journal, No. 89, January 2023: 75.
- Cindy Carter, “Good Morning Class, I Am Not a Spy,” China Digital Times, September 21, 2023, accessed September 28, 2023, https://chinadigitaltimes.net/2023/09/good-morning-class-i-am-not-a-spy/.
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio
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