Covid-19 and the Risks of Decentralisation:Crisis Management as Central-Local Risk Management in China

The threat posed by the coronavirus crisis is a holistic one – and so must be the response to it. Covid-19 prevention and control thus should be undertaken by all levels of government: not only national and international, but also subnational local units. Even the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the world’s largest centralist and unitary country, has emphasised the importance of the local level in managing covid-19. This particularly holds true for the pandemic’s first epicentre, Wuhan City in Hubei Province: “If Wuhan wins, Hubei wins; if Hubei wins, the whole country wins”. However, decentralisation in fighting covid-19 carries certain risks [I.] for the PRC’s and the Communist Party’s (CCP) [II.] central level. In order to manage these central-local risks when managing the coronavirus crisis, two “conduits” are applied [III.] that render Wuhan a mere “agent” of the centre [IV.] in covid-19 prevention and control.

I.       Risks of decentralisation

One of the risks of decentralising covid-19 prevention and control is that empowered local units may resort to local “parochialism”. Such excessive localism can yield negative impacts on non-residents and other local units. For example, due to the lockdown of Wuhan, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers and (transient) travellers were unable to return or continue to travel to their place of residence or destination. Wuhan’s abrupt announcement thus left them stranded in the city without proper accommodation and income, as the city primarily supported its own residents. But parochialism can also cause negative consequences for those residents, especially if local units are not held accountable towards the population. This is the case in the PRC, where neither free and direct elections (above the county level) nor legal remedies against local legislation exist. Yet, in the eyes of PRC central leaders, there is an even greater risk of decentralising covid-19 measures: that China, the “centrifugal empire”, could break apart. The central level is considered to be “obsessed” with preventing “centrifugal forces” from threatening its power and the country’s unity. Similar fears of “centrifugalism” prevail amongst the Chinese populace and academia. The popular and scholarly perception of, and confidence in, state and party organs deteriorate vertically: The more local a unit is, the less trusted it is.

This risk assessment might explain why the PRC – despite its huge territory, the world’s largest population, multi-ethnic features and the diseconomies of scale – rejects federalism as well as a vertical or horizontal separation of powers, promoting a “division of labour” between “quasi-branches” of government instead. Moreover, this risk perception appears to correspond to “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”, the current variety of Sino-Marxism. Xi promotes recentralisation on all levels of the PRC and the Communist Party (CCP) and “top-down governance” by the party and state centre. Inside the state centre, the mainly responsible organs for the risk management of pandemics are the “quasi-executive” State Council and its National Health Commission (Emergency Response Law art. 9; Infectious Disease Law art. 6, § 1:1). During pandemics like covid-19, the outlined risk assessment even aggravates, as the PRC is considered to abruptly centralise political decision-making in its “crisis mode”.

II.      Party and state in Wuhan

Nevertheless, covid-19 prevention and control measures have overwhelmingly been issued by local units – and vary heavily between them. The central level has explicitly rejected to “cut with one knife” in the coronavirus crisis. Instead, it has ordered to treat “the whole country as one chess game”, that is, with local differentiation, but arranged and commanded by the centre.

The first figures on this “chessboard” are the local party committees as separate party organs. On the central level, party organs and state organs are regularly headed by the same persons, as Xi Jinping illustrates. On the local level, in contrast, the leader of the party committee is not identical to the leaders of state organs – but even superior to them. This is due to the all-embracing “leadership of the party” over the state (Constitution art. 1, § 2:2; Legislation Law art. 3). “The party leads on everything”, including all horizontal “quasi-branches” and vertical levels of government (CCP Statute general programme, § 25:2). In addition, the superiority also results from inner-party hierarchy: In Wuhan, the municipal party committee’s secretary Wang Zhonglin is superior to vice-secretary Zhou Xianwang – who at the same time is Wuhan’s mayor. Also, most other members of municipal state organs throughout all (quasi-)branches are CCP members or party cadres.

Secondly, there exist “party groups” inside all central or local state organs and many other “non-party organisations”. These government-“internal” groups are then headed by the head of the respective state organ. This also holds true for Wuhan’s state organs involved in fighting covid-19. For example, the Wuhan Health Commission’s (WHC) director Zhang Hongxing is also secretary of the “CCP group of the WHC”. The same holds true for the Wuhan Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (WCDC), whose director Li Gang also presides the “party group of the WCDC”.

Thirdly, an ad hoc institution was created for the coronavirus crisis: the “Wuhan Headquarters for Covid-19 Pandemic Prevention and Control”. These headquarters constitute a mixed state and party organ, presided together by party secretary Wang Zhonglin and mayor Zhou Xianwang, and staffed with members of both Wuhan’s government and party committee. This does not only violate the requirement that headquarters shall exclusively consist of local government officials (PHE Response Regulation art. 4, § 1), it also breaks through the vague boundaries between party and state on the municipal level. This is highly questionable in terms of formal competences – but promoted by the central level, calling to “combat formalism and bureaucracy” in the “combat” against covid-19.

III.    Conduits in covid-19 management

The reason for the centre to promote this intermingling of party and state is that, at the same time, it consolidates the centre’s leadership over the local level. This is because central-local leadership is realised through vertical channels of the party, not the state. In “normal” times, leadership takes a double conduit: In the first step, central state leaders, in their function as party leaders, control the Wuhan’s branch of the CCP. In the second step, municipal party organs decisively influence Wuhan’s state organs through personnel (nomenklatura), institutional and disciplinary measures. In the crisis mode of fighting covid-19, however, this chain of command is often reduced to a single conduit: Central state leaders, in their function as party leaders, issue commands to the “Wuhan Covid-19 Headquarters”. This mixed state-party organ is directly bound to CCP stipulations as most of its members are party cadres. Besides, the central party level can even issue orders directly addressing Wuhan’s state organs, which are constitutionally(!) bound to them because of the principle of party leadership [cf. supra II.]. Therefore, Wuhan’s people’s congress has openly stated to act in the coronavirus crisis by “call” and under “command” not only of Wuhan’s and Hubei’s party committee, but also of the party centre.

First example for this single conduit is Wuhan’s lockdown on January 23, cordoning-off the city from the rest of the country. The notice to close all roads and stop all means of transportation to and from Wuhan has been issued by the abovementioned “Wuhan Covid-19 Headquarters”. Yet, the blockade of infectious disease areas in case of large cities or main traffic lines must be decided by the State Council (Infectious Disease Law art. 43, § 2). This makes Wuhan’s notice ultra vires – which, however, is accepted by the centre as a “fight against formalism” in the “fight” against covid-19. Moreover, the Wuhan Covid-19 Headquarters only announced the lockdown, but did not decide it by itself: Originally, the city on January 21 had only planned “soft measures” like cancelling mass events and promoting hand washing. But on January 22, central-level Vice Premier and senior CCP member Sun Chunlan undertook an “inspection tour” to Wuhan, ordering local “party and government cadres to  resolutely prevent the spread of the epidemic to other regions”.

A second example is Wuhan’s shutdown on February 10 by another notice of the “Wuhan Covid-19 Headquarters”, introducing a “closed management” for all residential communities and villages. However, this change of direction on the local level was brought about by the centre’s decision to replace the party secretaries of Wuhan and Hubei due to failures in covid-19 containment. Once installed, the new party secretaries immediately implemented the party centre’s strict line on pandemic prevention and control. On February 14, the Wuhan COVID-19 Headquarters specified and tightened the “closed management” to a strict curfew for almost all persons inside the city. On February 16, the Hubei COVID-19 Headquarters extended this curfew to almost the whole province.

IV.    Wuhan as an agent

Therefore, in the coronavirus crisis, Wuhan’s state and party organs constitute agents of the central level. The city thus must pursue the interests of the centre, regarded as the “overall interest of the whole country” (Legislation Law art. 4). But even as an agent implementing central stipulations on fighting covid-19, Wuhan still aims and needs to “combine” them “with the city’s context” (see Legislation Law art. 72, §2:1; PHE Response Regulation art. 10, § 2, art. 31, § 1). This type of agency questions the common assumption of the PRC’s “abrupt centralisation” in crises. Certainly, in the coronavirus crisis, fundamental decisions are approved, commanded, or even proclaimed by the party and state centre – but the same holds true for “normal” times. Moreover, the central level arranges a territorially differentiated approach – not only in the “normal” mode of urban governance, but also during the coronavirus crisis. This demonstrates that federalism and municipal self-government are no conditiones sine qua no for local regulatory differentiation. Yes, PRC-style decentralisation – as a “chess game” arranged by the centre – might even prove more effective and efficient than the “regulatory patchwork” in federal states (whose success, however, can vary heavily, as the example of the United States versus Australia demonstrate), let alone supranational systems like the EU.

However, local covid-19 measures must not merely be scrutinised in their effectiveness or efficiency, but also in their broader legal effects. This scrutiny reveals the pitfalls of China’s coronavirus “chess game”: Adapting covid-19 measures to the local prevalence can minimise the interference with the local population’s human rights in less affected areas. However, this does not at all mean that vice versa, in hard-hit areas, it is “okay” to violate myriad freedoms of millions of people during dozens of weeks – as is the case in Wuhan. Therefore, Wuhan’s coronavirus crisis management does not reveal the superiority of the Chinese (central-local) system, but rather its distinctive (central-local) risk assessment. China thus demonstrates that (public health) emergencies require risk management not only of the risks related to the emergency as such, but also of the risks of decentralisation and, vice versa, (re-)centralisation rooted in the central-local system.

Posted by Philipp Renninger, academic assistant (Lucerne, CH) and doctoral candidate (Lucerne, CH & Freiburg, DE) in comparative and Chinese law –

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