“The Last Mile” in Ambiguity

Jul 2, 2024 1:43 AM

Fangyu Qing

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Publication year
July 2, 2024


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“The Last Mile” in Ambiguity

by Fangyu Qing

Last Mile Blog Series 1: The Last Political Mile: “The Last Mile” as a Metaphor

Last Mile Blog Series 2: The Last Mile as Space? A Review of Ashish Rajadyahksha’s Inquiry into Technology and Governance in India

In the previous blog posts, I mentioned the existence of the "last mile problem" between the state and the society and developed the notion of considering the "last mile" as a space in which different social actors negotiate their roles with a distant supervision of the state. This time, in this re-defining imaginary experiment of a "last mile", I would like to discuss 1) the cause of a "last mile"; and 2) the meaning of its existence.

Rather than providing a list of bullet points to introduce these questions, I would like to unpack this term with the concept of "ambiguity". In my understanding, such ambiguity can be seen as the cause of a "last mile space".

Ambiguous Communication of Policy

The "last mile" exists largely because the principal does not have the resources to control everything, and there is need to both protect the agent's agency and improve local innovation*. Here the principal-agent is a relative concept, could be referring to the state and the society, as well as the central government and the local government. However, in my understanding, all of them are based on an ambiguous communication of policy.

This type of communication is specifically demonstrated on two levels. First, in the text, policies are communicated in an ambiguous way. In Zhan and Qin's (2017) research, they mentioned that only the following norms or aspects were important: economic, political, cultural and social development, as well as party building in the infrastructure project, National Socialist Country Construction in China. These vague words and fuzzy instructions leave a lot of room for local variations, with corruption and innovation at the same time.

In the communication and media field, the "media policy silence" is witnessed to support the existence of ambiguity in the textual level (see Li, 2021).

Second, the practice accompanying the text is also ambiguous. Without first-hand information, scholars mentioned in previous research that in the US "the legislature, as the principal, may deliberately introduce uncertainty about its demand for bureaucratic services in order to prevent the bureaucracy, as the agent, from exaggerating the budget it needs to provide the services" (Bendor, J., Taylor, S., & Van Gaalen, R., 1985, in Zhan & Qin, 2017). Related literature on China can be found in keywords such as "fragmented authoritarianism" (Lieberthal, 1992), "guerrilla political style and adaptive governance" (Heilmann & Perry, 2011), and "bargained authoritarianism" (Lee & Zhang, 2013).

Within the “Last Mile Space”

The "last mile" in a universal "principal-agent" relationship could be used as a perspective for understanding society and politics. For my scholarship, it is important to see the cracks, discontinuities, and voids within the assemblage of a state, and to consider the inability and reachability of the status quo of the state.

What is the point of having a "last mile space"? When I dig into this problem, the question itself becomes more complex. The "last mile space" could be understood in a very demonizing way but could also provide a promising approach. The last mile space is a place where actors can demonstrate their agency, in the way of forming alliances to help the marginalized and provide public opinion, but also in the way of actors using this power to unfairly compete, corrupt the system, or deceive others.

When I considered the "last mile" as a universal concept, I also realize that in different cultures and places, it may be done in completely different ways.

The ambiguity enhanced the role of the “last mile space” as a grey area. For scholars, it would be interesting to explore the actors, roles, rules, and traditions within the “last mile space”.

In the first blog, we also mentioned that the "last mile" for the state to regulate, govern, reach or define other actors could be the "first mile" for actors, mostly citizens, to interact with state power. For individuals, what could be the expectations when interacting with the state? I will try to touch this question in the final blog post.

*The term “principal-agent” is adopted with the inspiration from Zhan & Qin, 2017.


Bendor, Jonathan, Serge Taylor, and Roland Van Gaalen. “Bureaucratic Expertise versus Legislative Authority: A Model of Deception and Monitoring in Budgeting.” The American Political Science Review 79, no. 4 (1985): 1041–60. https://doi.org/10.2307/1956247.

Heilmann, Sebastian, and Elizabeth J Perry. “Embracing Uncertainty: Guerrilla Policy Style and Adaptive Governance in China,” n.d.

Lee, Ching Kwan, and Yonghong Zhang. “The Power of Instability: Unraveling the Microfoundations of Bargained Authoritarianism in China.” American Journal of Sociology 118, no. 6 (2013): 1475–1508. https://doi.org/10.1086/670802.

Li, Luzhou. “How to Think about Media Policy Silence.” Media, Culture & Society 43, no. 2 (March 1, 2021): 359–68. https://doi.org/10.1177/0163443720948004.

Lieberthal, Kenneth, James Tong, and Sai-cheung Yeung. Central Documents and Politburo Politics in China. University of Michigan Press, 2020. https://doi.org/10.3998/mpub.20021.

Zhan, Jing Vivian, and Shuang Qin. “The Art of Political Ambiguity: Top–down Intergovernmental Information Asymmetry in China.” Journal of Chinese Governance 2, no. 2 (April 3, 2017): 149–68. https://doi.org/10.1080/23812346.2016.1277507.