In early June, when the local authorities of Shanghai lifted its three-month-long lockdown, the central government soon announced its own approach toward the zero COVID-19 goal: conducting mass PCR testing nationwide, alongside some economic stimulus. In practice, this policy requests every resident to take PCR tests regularly and frequently in exchange for relatively moderate measures in dealing with a local outbreak.
However, the skeptics point out that based on China’s political system of fragmented authoritarianism, such a gigantic health project would be untenable. Local governments, facing economic strain, usually cope with superordinate tasks through their own countermeasures. Will the latent conflict between the central and local authorities around the COVID-19 pandemic have long-term consequences?
The Executive Dilemma of China’s Local Authorities
The prototype of policy regarding mass COVID-19 testing was built by the National Health Commission (NHC), China’s top health authorities, on May 13, with a plan to set up COVID-19 testing booths within a 15-minute walk in all major cities. Testing must be widely available, because residents must present a negative PRC test, conducted in the last 24 to 72 hours, to use public facilities or services. According to a report released by a Suzhou-based financial firm, Soochow Securities, as of late May, this new policy has started to be carried out in five of China’s 31 provinces and a total of 57 cities.
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The most contentious issue centers on the cost of sustaining the widespread testing. The National Healthcare Security Administration stated on May 26 that local governments are to bear all the expenses of conducting the mass testing. This decision provoked worries from local officials and party cadres.
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China is already infamous for sticking local governments with the financial burdens of welfare policies while directing tax revenue to the center. In 1994, the Chinese government initiated the tax-sharing reform of the central and local government, with the original purpose of alleviating the budget deficit. That goal has been achieved, yet the heavy financial burden on local governments has not been addressed. This result, coupled with “Nomenklatura,” the Soviet-style institution used by the Chinese Communist Party(CCP) to assess and appoint cadres to key bureaucratic positions, has worsened the stresses for local officials in completing tasks from the superiors, which will determine promotion opportunities.
Given the dilemma of weak local capacity and strong central government, local authorities must seek a realistic approach to prevent aggravating the complex contradictions between the people and governmental departments. Langzhong, a county-level city in northeastern Sichuan province, directly announced that residents would be self-paying for PCR tests at a rate of 3.5 renminibi per week, due to the unaffordable cost for the local government. In particular, the PCR tests soon turned “voluntary.” Langzhong’s story is not a unique case but a common phenomenon in other urban areas. Zhao Dahai, executive director of the Shanghai Jiao Tong University-Yale Joint Center for Health Policy, remarked that under the shadow of an economic recession, the regular testing made local finances worse. With rising expenses and falling revenue, the local government were facing mounting fiscal pressure from both sides.
In the following weeks after rolling out the new testing policy, the NHC responded to the potential controversy by recognizing that whether a city needs to establish a normalized COVID-19 testing system depends on the local situation. In the view of decision-makers, port cities, provincial capitals, and metropolitan areas with a population of more than 10 million are at higher risk of outbreaks. On the other hand, “Frequent PCR tests shall not be a normalized system in the areas with neither a local outbreak nor the risk of importation,” said Beijing’s health officials. In other words, different local authorities are not required to carry out a unified COVID-19 prevention policy.
Fragmented Authoritarianism and China’s Zero-COVID Policy
The difficulties in both central-local relations and policy execution that the local governments faced during the pandemic highlighted a significant feature in Chinese politics: “fragmented authoritarianism.” Scholars began to conceptualize this in the 1980s, when the CCP decided to decentralize and conduct ambitious administrative reform. Kenneth Lieberthal and Michel Oksenberg coined the term in 1992, when they observed that China’s traditionally hierarchical party-state system is fragmented and disjointed. Institutionally, the bureaucratic ranking system combines with the functional division of authority among various bureaucracies, leaving space between central leadership and the subordinate departments for loopholes and bargaining in implementing a certain policy.
In the lexicon of Chinese politics, another term is “tiao/kuai systems,” referring to two parallel governmental structures: the vertical one under the functional department and the horizontal one in the administrative divisions. This offers a more descriptive framing of how, exactly, Chinas authoritarianism is “fragmented.”
The top leadership’s decentralization push has partially revitalized the autonomy of local authorities. At the same time, the debate over centralization, decentralization, and competition among agencies based on overlapping interests led to inefficient policy execution. Therefore, China’s party-state is not a complete top-down institution, as many people believe, because policy implementation in this fragmented system is highly complicated and inconsistent.
Historically, there is no more typical example than the process of constructing the Three Gorges Dam. From the mid-1950s, when the party drove this supersized hydroelectric project onto the agenda, how to coordinate and mobilize the departments spanning different functions and regions became the priority issue. In the face of the shocks of political campaigns, war scares, and fierce competition within the party, this infrastructure initiative had to be postponed several times and was finally completed only in 2020.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the authorities’ responsiveness to the public health crisis again showed some features of fragmented authoritarianism. The tough nationwide measures, such as the zero-COVID policy and lockdowns in major cities, manifest that the central government prevails over the local authorities in the game between centralization and decentralization. President Xi Jinping is eager to further his personal authority and stabilize the regime. Especially when dealing with challenges to his controversial domestic policy after canceling the term limit on the presidency, the coronavirus outbreak provided an opportunity for Xi to realize his political goal by enhancing his influence over localities. This explains why, under Xi’s “personal guidance and deployment,” the local governments in Wuhan, Shanghai, Jilin province, and other sub-provincial cities responded excessively to a few confirmed cases.
On the flip side, however, local authorities also faced difficult choices in coping with the stress of governmental performance. Maria Edin’s studies on townships note that the Chinese government has strengthened local capacity through cadre management reform. The introduction of an accountability system requires that “township leaders pledge to attain certain targets laid down by higher levels, and are held personally responsible for attaining those targets.”
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In the case of China’s response to COVID-19, the growing number of local cadres held accountable over outbreaks and the increasingly harsh criteria for health management have forced local officials to follow the policy track of the central government, even at the expense of economic growth. This is the first governance mode of coping with the local epidemic.
Another mode represents relatively more flexible measures adopted by local government. In comparison with Shanghai’s unprecedentedly restricted lockdown, Shenzhen helped to maintain economic growth through keeping factories running, despite this megacity suffering from the same wave of local outbreaks as Shanghai at almost the same time. It should be noticed that apart from the various twists and turns in the epidemic itself, the kuai or “horizontal” governance capacity and responsiveness toward Beijing’s executive command of municipal authorities also determines the fate of urban areas that fall under the shadow of COVID-19.
Fragmented Authoritarianism as a Tool Stabilizing the CCP’s Regime
Although the CCP’s harsh response to the coronavirus has exposed the limitations of China’s central-local relationship, it does not mean that the brittle-looking institution will threaten the authoritarian regime. First, the temporary setback in implementing mass COVID-19 testing in sub-provincial and lower-level cities merely indicates the central government’s partial grant of decentralization to the localities. In a sense, the party’s free swings between centralization and decentralization in public health policy actually demonstrated its solid control over the local governments. Second, based on overlapping interests in regard to the COVID-19 policy, the competition between “tiao” or “kuai” and their bargains with Beijing leave intact the buffer zone to ease the sharp conflict between the ruling elites and local elites. Unquestionably, these delicate ties will sustain until the 20th National Congress of the CCP has a peaceful ending.