‘Beijing is far away’

Original Lecture: “‘Beijing is far away’: The Provinces in China,” Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, 25 October 2010.


This presentation examines the political and administrative system of China from the point of view of the provinces. Contrary to common perception and despite the highly authoritarian nature of China’s political system, actual authority is in most instances fragmented. Great diversities have always existed among Chinese provinces and the reach of central government has had its limitations. The constant struggle between central authority and local governments has been a dominant feature of governance in China right from its unification under the Qin dynasty to the present day. Imperial governments sought to maintain tight control of provincial appointments and revenues, and set strict limits to the scope of provinces for independent action, while the latter, on the other hand, sought sufficient autonomy to ensure effective local government. Even the Communist regime in China with all its centralizing tendencies has had to contend with this dynamic of governance – the struggle for provincial autonomy.


Studying centre-province and inter-province relationships in China from the perspective of the provinces, provides a new framework for analyzing political and economic developments in China. Altogether four distinct phenomena are examined:

– localism – centre-province competition

– provincialism – inter-province competition

– regionalism – inter-province cooperation

– transnationalism – province-foreign country linkages

A fifth issue might also be considered namely, intra-provincial competition and/or the rise of China’s cities

Examples are also given from India to help better understand these dynamics in India.


Download the full presentation: JabinJacob-2010Oct25-JNU-Beijing is far away


Published by Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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  1. Are there province-to-province dialogues/areas of co-operation/conflicts/other issues that occur where the central governments (i.e. New Dehli and Beijing) do not have a lead role?


    1. Yes, Bill, certainly.

      But to clarify, very often when i refer to inter-provincial contact, it can also refer to contact between non-governmental entities in the provinces such as business and trade interests. In China, such non-governmental contact is especially noteworthy given the sheer difficulty of organizing across the country without the government getting to know or getting involved. Thus, the growth of the Falun Gong in China in the 1990s is a case in point. It shows that despite distance and strong central government control, the movement grew since across the country since its founding in 1992 and till the Beijing cracked down in 1999. Similarly, the Tibetan protests across 4 provinces in 2008.

      Now in India, or Canada or the United States no one would think twice about a national-level movement of this sort, but in China it’s still a big deal.

      To answer your specific question on China, the central government initially encouraged the development of larger economic regions of particular sets of provinces or parts of provinces, such as the the Pearl River Delta (PRD) around Hong Kong and Guagnzhou and the Yangtze River Delta covering Shanghai and 14 other cities. Since then the provincial governments have taken the lead and after that at one level down, its the businesses and enterprises (often provincial government-owned) that have taken the lead.

      Similarly, in the mid-1990s the central Chinese province of Hubei tried to cobble together its neighbouring provinces in an economic grouping with itself at the centre, didn’t quite succeed. Not suprising when you think the strategy was called – “Rising Abruptly over Central China” – it’s neighbours simply got jealous.

      So conflicts there are plenty of between the provinces – ‘commodity wars’ between Chinese provinces in the 1980s, ‘water wars’ between South Indian provinces/states over access to river water resources that are ongoing, problems of coordination and working at cross-purposes between Indian states trying to deal with the left-wing Naxalite/Maoist insurgency in central India, etc.


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