The Myth of Authoritarian Superiority: China’s Response to Covid-19 Revisited
Tuesday, June 1, 2021
Is China’s authoritarian system superior to a liberal democracy in terms of crisis management? This question is addressed by looking at China’s pandemic response since December 2019. In due course, an authoritarian state can come forth with a robust ability to mobilize resources and bureaucratic capacity for high-priority action. However, the downside of China’s authoritarian model is equally glaring. Although the cover-up and inaction contributed to emergence of the crisis, China’s initial mishandling suggests that an authoritarian state is highly susceptible to any disruptions or shocks. To some extent, the policy blunders in late January 2020 intensified the crisis facing the Chinese leadership. The zero-infections policy introduced after April 2020 encourages an at-all-costs and by-all-means approach that is currently experiencing diminishing returns and hindering China’s mass vaccination efforts. Overall, the analysis does not support China’s authoritarian model as a viable alternative to liberal democracy.
Chinese Crisis Decision Making: Managing the COVID-19 Pandemic
Part Two: The International Dimension
Michael D. Swaine
Tuesday, September 1, 2020
The international aspects of the Chinese leadership’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic cover a broad spectrum of activities, both positive and negative. On the positive side, Beijing has provided valuable assistance to nations and international organizations struggling with the virus and engaged in an intensive diplomatic effort to present itself as a strong supporter of the global response. On the negative side, the Chinese leadership has resorted to ham-handed efforts to compel other countries to praise China’s role and at times acted irresponsibly in responding to foreign criticism of its own behavior. In the process, it has argued that its system of rule is extremely adept at handling major crises and by implication superior to the American system. The Chinese leadership has also engaged with Washington in a petty “blame game” over the pandemic that has damaged the reputation of both nations. Beijing’s mixed record suggests that it must do more to show that it is genuinely committed to overcoming the pandemic through greater transparency, cooperation, and consultation.
China’s Public Health Response to the COVID-19 Outbreak
Monday, June 1, 2020
This essay focuses on the pattern of China’s public health response to the COVID-19 outbreak. While the government response suggests that important progress has been made in strengthening disease surveillance and response capacities in the post-SARS era, it also reveals a pattern of cover-up and inaction similar to what occurred during the SARS outbreak. This time, however, local government leaders and health authorities appear to have played a more prominent role in the making of the crisis. Once central leaders recognized the severity of the crisis, they—like their counterparts during the SARS crisis—did not hesitate to turn to draconian measures to contain the outbreak. However, compared to the reverse course during the SARS crisis, the COVID-19 containment measures were carried out more aggressively and extensively, aided by high-tech means. The speed and scale of the containment efforts and the government’s ability to rein in the spread of the virus show the presence of a highly resilient and powerful state. Still, the tremendous social-economic costs incurred by strict disease control measures and the inability to completely break the transmission chain highlight the limits of the state reach. The essay concludes with a discussion on the replicability of the Chinese approach.
How Has the Coronavirus Crisis Affected Xi’s Power: A Preliminary Assessment
Monday, June 1, 2020
The December 2019 coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan and the subsequent spread of the pandemic throughout the country and the world is the worst political crisis Chinese leader Xi Jinping has faced in his seven years in power. The party-state’s poor initial response, whether due to the cover-up by local officials or Xi’s own inadequate attention or poor judgment, not only reveals some of the well-known systemic flaws in the Chinese state but also exposes Xi to criticisms of questionable leadership. Yet, despite its initial missteps, the party-state managed to contain the viral outbreak quickly, largely due to its formidable capacity to mobilize the resources at its disposal. While sustaining real, albeit limited, damage to his authority for now, Xi is likely to experience greater difficulties in confronting the medium-to-long–term economic and geopolitical consequences of the pandemic.
Chinese Crisis Decision Making -- Managing the COVID-19 Pandemic
Part One: The Domestic Component
Michael D. Swaine
Monday, June 1, 2020
Available open sources indicate that in their domestic handling of the COVID-19 virus, the central Chinese authorities generally followed, ultimately to good effect, established crisis management processes and procedures as well as post-SARS regulations for dealing with a health emergency. A major exception to this record occurred with regard to the initial reporting on the virus by both local and central authorities, where the pre-existing network reporting system was not utilized early enough and both local and initial central expert teams sent to Wuhan failed to detect the seriousness of the outbreak. Once the top leadership clearly recognized the gravity of the situation, it moved with at times ruthless efficiency to combat the virus. Although Xi Jinping and other senior officials subsequently acknowledged that mistakes were made, the center only punished local officials, in an apparent attempt to deflect blame from the top, as was also the case during the SARS epidemic. Available open sources provide no clear proof that the more extreme charge of a deliberate cover-up of a known deadly and highly contagious outbreak is accurate. However, they do indicate that the Chinese system remains excessively bureaucratic and consensus-driven, often prizing political criteria over expert-based information and reflexively suppressing unauthorized communications.