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The Mountains Are Shorter, Part 2

From the series Our China Stories

“The mountains are high and the emperor is far away” (shan gao Huangdi yuan 山高皇帝远)

For decades, many foreign Christian workers in China’s distant provinces have assumed that being far from the capital meant being out of the watchful eye of China’s rulers. In part one, we looked at how changing incentives have made it less likely for officials to turn a blind eye toward what foreigners are doing their localities. Here we examine two other pieces of the puzzle, namely, China’s changing bureaucracy and the advance of the surveillance state. Together these developments have dramatically altered the landscape for believers serving in China.

The Shrinking State

Xi Jinping has overseen a massive consolidation of power, beginning with the central leading groups at the pinnacle of the party-state hierarchy and extending down through government departments at every level. Many state organs no longer exist as discrete entities, having been subsumed within the Party departments under which they had previously been supervised. A case in point is the Religious Affairs Bureau (later renamed the State Administration for Religious Affairs). Now called the National Religious Affairs Administration, it has been absorbed by the United Front Work Department, the Party organ responsible for overseeing all non-Communist elements in society. This reorganization is in keeping with the shift in the Party’s orientation toward religion, from routine management to direct control, as exemplified by the current Sinicization campaign, which aims to turn religious organizations into agents of Party propaganda.1

Foreigners who had previously worked with RAB officials may encounter a different atmosphere as they reunite with their counterparts in China. While these officials seem to again be putting out the welcome mat for overseas visitors,2 it remains to be seen whether the scope of cooperation with these groups will return to pre-pandemic levels.

The 2016 Foreign NGO Law, which put foreign-run charities under the Ministry of Public Security rather than the Ministry of Civil Affairs, is further evidence of the Party’s politicizing areas of society that had previously been allowed a certain degree of independence, replacing management with direct control.

Eyes Everywhere

This pervasive control is made possible on a practical level by a surveillance web that stretches into every corner of China. As one longtime expatriate observed last year, “From required retina scans on workplace time-punch clocks and real name contact tracing on all cellphones, to the AI-powered facial recognition software behind China’s network of ubiquitous security cameras, Xi’s China has become a panopticon state, where the Party can observe and thus potentially interfere in all aspects of life within China’s borders.”3 

Behind the ubiquitous technology lies a 20-year effort to enhance the intelligence gathering and sharing functions of China’s security organs. Beginning with the Golden Shield Project in the early 2000s, public security authorities have replaced the stove-piped investigative efforts of local and provincial police departments with a nationwide information sharing platform. The Safe Cities initiative launched in 2010 expanded surveillance capabilities in the cities. This was further enhanced through the Skynet program, which introduced more sophisticated technology, including the use of drones. In 2015 the Brightness or “Sharp Eyes” initiative brought improved networking and video surveillance capabilities and extended the surveillance network to the village or subdistrict level.4

Today China has a national network that ties together data from electronic and human sources with records from government departments, utilities, educational institutions, hotels, internet and cellphone providers, credit card transactions, and commercial enterprises. New analytical tools, including artificial intelligence, are employed to make sense of the data. At the grassroots level, the neighborhood grid system for urban policing utilizes police, community officers (chengguan 城管), and local informants. The intelligence they provide is combined with electronic data to provide a comprehensive picture of local residents. While such intrusive measures may raise questions about the legality of the Party’s interventions, these concerns appear to have been addressed in the 2017 National Intelligence Law and subsequent security legislation.5 In much the same way that high-speed rail has shortened the physical distance between cities in China, these institutional changes have bridged the political distance between the masses in China (including foreigners) and the central government. Mountains today no longer symbolize separation, but rather strength, as suggested by another phrase, tieda de Jiangshan (铁打的江山). Literally meaning “rivers and mountains forged in iron,” it is commonly translated “iron-clad country,” a fitting description of the seemingly unshakeable state power being exerted throughout Xi’s China.


  1. Yang Ming, “China Issues New Requirements for Religious Groups,” VOA, August 31, 2023, accessed October 6, 2023,
  2. Serena Tse, “German Evangelical Church Visits Shanghai,” China Christian Daily, September 26, 2023, accessed September 27, 2023, See also
  3. Swells in the Middle Kingdom, “Expatriates Serving in China’s New Era,” ChinaSource Quarterly, Winter 2022, accessed September 29, 2023,
  4. Jingyang Huang and Kellee S. Tsai, “Securing Authoritarian Capitalism in the Digital Age: The Political Economy of Surveillance in China,” The China Journal 88, (July 2022): 10-11.
  5. Edward Schwarck, “Intelligence and Informatization: The Rise of the Ministry of Public Security in Intelligence Work in China,” The China Journal 80, (July 2018): 8-17.
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Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

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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