SINCE THE Ming dynasty, Chinese who are oppressed by local officials have sighed, by way of explanation: “The heavens are high, and the emperor far away.” An earthier variant runs: “With no tiger in the mountains, the monkeys are in charge.” Today’s Communist Party bosses have no time for such cynicism. They want the masses to believe that, even in the remotest villages, their welfare is the concern of an all-knowing leader, Xi Jinping, served by officials striving to follow his stern but wise example.
Inspiring the public is not the party’s only concern. A central task of the Xi era is to transform morale among the country’s 90m party members, including millions of bureaucrats. Officials are told that they serve a rising China, whose growing strength is the awe of the world. Since Mr Xi became supreme leader in 2012, party membership has been presented as something close to a secular priesthood, in which a select few selflessly serve the masses. Government ministries in Beijing play their part in spreading the faith. Their high-flying staff—almost always party members—compete for the career-enhancing honour of a stint as grassroots officials in impoverished villages and towns.
Central government departments have sponsored a growing number of poor counties around the country since 1992, when the State Council first urged ministries to pair up with left-behind places. Chaguan recently spent four days in Malipo, a remote county of conical, cloud-topped hills, terraced fields and fruit orchards in the southern province of Yunnan, on the border with Vietnam. Malipo has been sponsored for 29 years by the foreign ministry, which organised (but did not pay for) this reporter’s visit with a delegation of officials from the national and provincial governments. The ministry uses its connections to help the county, which was declared free of extreme poverty in 2019 and last year recorded an average income per person of 11,984 yuan ($1,874). Foreign embassies and businesses have donated school buildings, books and scholarships. On October 17th America’s National Basketball Association donated a new basketball court to a middle school in Malipo (the NBA is still trying to mend fences in China after a coach signalled support for Hong Kong’s democrats, triggering nationalist fury). “Of course this is thanks to the foreign ministry,” said the headmaster, as teenage pupils intently copied the moves of visiting NBA coaches, or shyly asked them for autographs. The nearest city, Wenshan, used to be hours away along winding roads. A new motorway opened on October 1st, following lobbying by the foreign ministry. A diplomatic charity raised funds to build clean water systems for villagers who previously fetched water by hand.
Dozens of younger diplomats have done stints as volunteer teachers in primary schools in villages. More importantly, the ministry sends a mid-ranking official to serve for a year or two as Malipo’s deputy county chief. Duties include conducting foreign policy, for officials in Yunnan must talk to Vietnamese counterparts about exchanges of students or travel permits for ethnic minorities whose lands straddle the frontier. Both sides regularly clear landmines from border areas—a lethal legacy of China’s brief invasion of Vietnam in 1979, which still costs locals limbs.
Domestic tasks also loom. The ministry’s current man in Malipo, Chen Minghuang, served in Japan for several years. In addition to seeking inward investments for the county, he is, among other things, responsible for water quality in several rivers. Asked why a non-specialist can be entrusted with such work, a local official praises foreign-ministry volunteers for their promotional skills. Diplomats may not know how to raise a pig, but they can spot what makes a pig from Malipo marketable, she enthuses.
Chaguan ventures at one point that an Oxbridge-educated British diplomat may receive a thin welcome if sent to help run a county in rural Scotland, without any experience in local government. China is not so hung up about elitism, it turns out. The foreign ministry sends “the best of the best”, responds an official from Beijing. It sends party members, because they are expected to be moral exemplars. “Compared with the masses, party members represent more progressive and developed forces. That’s how they can help the people,” says the visitor from Beijing. A years-long anti-corruption drive has created a culture of honesty among officials of all ranks, she adds. At an agricultural training base, local officials offer a broad defence of rule by technocrats. Farmers may not understand which crops will grow well, and which will make money, says a county official. The role of experts is to guide them to harness market forces.
Heaven near at hand, and the emperor close by
Some may dismiss all this as a mere propaganda tour. Certainly, the delegation was only taken to handsomely restored villages and model farms, and greeted by folk dancers at every turn. It would take many days of independent reporting to assess the foreign ministry’s help, not to mention its sustainability. Malipo is just one of 88 counties in Yunnan formerly ranked as extremely poor.
But a visit to Malipo is a window on something else important. Lots of officials are increasingly proud of the system they serve, especially as they survey what they regard as chaos in the West. More than before they talk openly about the party’s role in that system. As Mr Chen puts it, millions of party members are working towards the same goals, guided by strong leaders. He describes the changing views of Malipo’s masses as they see their roads being paved, and houses and schools restored. “The central government always enjoyed a high status in people’s minds. Now local government’s reputation has also risen,” Mr Chen says.
Mr Xi’s China remains a big country with complex problems, run by men who see a world full of hostile forces. But the domestic confidence of its ruling party is unmistakable. Outsiders miss that tigerish swagger at their peril. ■
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “The Communist Party’s confidence”