The Last Political Mile | “The Last Mile” as a Metaphor

Dec 8, 2023 2:11 AM

Fangyu Qing

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December 7, 2023


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The Last Political Mile | “The Last Mile” as a Metaphor

by Fangyu Qing

Most people are familiar with “The Last Mile Problem”. It often refers to the literal "last mile within telecommunication, public transportation, and logistics, however, with slightly different implications. In telecommunications, it is mainly about the final connection between a local telecommunications network and the end-user’s premises. In logistics, it refers to the final stage of the delivery process, where goods are transported from a distribution center to the customer’s doorstep. In those contexts, the “last mile” often creates major challenges for cost and infrastructure in both industries.

I argue that this term could also be used to describe the “last mile” for the state to reach its citizens. When we change our narrative and employ the “last mile problem” as a metaphor to this question, it could help disclosing the something invisible and intangible. In this series of blog posts, I will explore this topic in the context of China.

The Last Political Mile

The “Last Mile Problem” could become a suitable metaphor to describe the governance challenges the Chinese government is currently facing. An academic observation about the Chinese federal societies suggests that "the emperor's power does not reach the countryside (Huangquan bu xiaxian)”1, which means that in the federal dynasties, the emperor (or the central government) did not have enough manpower to govern the grassroots. At the local level, the representatives of the emperor tended to have a strategic alliance with the local elites, such as landlords and clans, to make sure the command from the central authority still functions smoothly. However, the interest of the local elites is not always aligned with the government heads, so the actual control over the local is never guaranteed.  

As a result of the drastic social change in China, starting from the First Opium War (1840-1842), the landlords and clans gradually disappeared throughout the modernization process. China’s grassroots society has yet to establish a new norm or a new local class that would take up the role of the clans and landlords. This has arguably led to a governmental crisis, as the central authorities lost their local allies, while the population of China keeps on growing. In the era of China’s planned economy, a social system, danwei (the units), was used to normalize social life and regulate citizens, but with the socio-economic transition the system soon disappeared.

Drawing from the book The Last Cultural Mile (Rajadhyaksha, 2015), I argue that we could use this idea to also describe this situation as a “Political Last Mile Problem”.  Like the logistics and transportation companies, the government faces a similar plight due to its incapability to “control” its mobile populations. In the context of the “Smart City”, we often hear how digital technologies are now adopted to solve urban problems, but will this also work in the socio-political realm?

The First Mile?

Instead of leaning towards a sensational polarization of either demonizing or glorifying this context, I wish this reflection could help provide a more nuanced understanding of the elastic power boundary of the state and its fluid role in everyday politics. Although this article will focus on China, the “Political Last Mile Problem” seems to be indeed a product of modernization, and as such China is only one of many variations.

For the state, it might be the “Last Mile” to reach its people, but for people in everyday life, it could also be seen as the “First mile” to interact with state power. In this case, we can shift the narrative from the state to the citizens, and initiate discussions on how individual rights and state power intersect and intertwine.

I hope to unpack this question more clearly in my forthcoming blog posts, starting with a review of Ashish Rajadyaksha’s aforementioned The Last Cultural Mile.


  1. For related debates, please refer to publications from Hsiao-tung Fei (about grassroot governance and dual track politics), Tiejun Wen, Hui Qin, Jing Zhang, Heng Hu, etc. The author has to mention most of the scholars mentioned above write and publish in Chinese.