China Power | Politics | East Asia

China and COVID-19: A Central-Local ‘Chess Game’

Attributing pandemic containment to “Beijing” is both wrong and right – and thus sheds light on China’s central-local governance.

By Philipp Renninger for
China and COVID-19: A Central-Local ‘Chess Game’

A resident wearing a mask against coronavirus walks past government propaganda poster featuring Tiananmen Gate in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province, April 16, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

It is wrong to assume, like most Western media and Chinese propaganda alike, that COVID-19 in China is being contained by the central government, or “Beijing.” The vast majority of pandemic measures are local in nature. They have been enacted by provinces and cities and vary greatly. The strictest rules yet applied in the pandemic’s first epicenter: Wuhan city in Hubei province. Such local regulatory difference is anything but usual in China. The world’s most populous country rejects federalism as a political “taboo.” Both state and party are not constructed bottom-up but through “democratic centralism.” “Top-down governance” and “top-level design” have further increased under Xi Jinping. And in times of crisis, decision-making typically becomes even more centralized.

Yet, it is precisely amid the coronavirus crisis that Xi Jinping himself refuses to “cut with one knife.” China’s central level has not enacted “blanket policies” for the whole country. This is even more surprising because in the face of COVID-19, highly decentralized countries like Switzerland and Austria resorted to national “one-size-fits-all” regulations.

It is right, however, to ultimately trace COVID-19 containment in China back to the central level. Xi demands to treat “the whole country as one chess game.” This means that pandemic containment should be locally differentiated, but its fundamental decisions must still be commanded or at least approved by the center. Cities and provinces shall thus enact their own measures, but as “agents” of the center. This central-local COVID-19 “chess game” is played by the rules not of the state but the Communist Party (CCP) as the CCP “leads on everything,” including the state, the army, and the people.

Therefore, there are other “pieces” on China’s “chessboard” than in liberal democracies. At the national level, Party organs are headed by the same persons as central state organs. At the local levels, in contrast, Party secretaries are not identical with local state leaders, but rather superior to them. This results from the CCP internal hierarchy: Wuhan’s Party secretary Wang Zhonglin ranks above Wuhan’s mayor Zhou Xianwang, who is merely the vice Party secretary of the city. In the coronavirus crisis, new local chess pieces were added, especially the ad hoc “Wuhan’s headquarters for COVID-19 prevention and control.” In violation of national law, this headquarters constitutes a mixed state-Party organ. It is chaired by both Party Secretary Wang and Mayor Zhou, and staffed with both government and Party committee members.

Moreover, the central level employs these chess pieces differently than in liberal democracies. The center controls and directs local units not through the channels of the state but through a conduit: the Communist Party. This enables three types of sophisticated “chess moves.”

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First in “normal times,” the center regularly makes a triple move: horizontal–vertical–horizontal. Central state leaders act as Party leaders (a horizontal move between Party and state at the same level of governance) in order to command the municipal CCP branch of Wuhan (a vertical move between levels of governance). Wuhan’s CCP organs then control and influence Wuhan’s state organs (another horizontal move). Such a triple move decisively tightened pandemic containment in the “middlegame” of COVID-19 chess. On February 10, Wuhan introduced “closed management” for all neighborhoods, without providing details yet. This change of direction emanated from the center’s decision to replace the Party secretaries of Wuhan and Hubei, who had failed in pandemic containment. Wuhan’s new Party Secretary Wang Zhonglin, appointed February 13, immediately implemented the center’s strict line on COVID-19. Only one day later, on February 14, Wuhan tightened “closed management” to include a curfew for most of the population and a shutdown of public life.

Second, in “crisis mode,” this chain of command is often reduced to a double move: horizontal–vertical. During the coronavirus crisis, central state leaders, again in their role as Party leaders, mostly give direct orders to Wuhan’s COVID-19 headquarters. As a mixed state-Party organ, the headquarters is directly bound to the CCP Central Committee’s command. Such a double move led to the “opening” of the COVID-19 chess game: Originally, Wuhan’s headquarters had only planned soft measures, like promoting hand washing and cancelling mass events from January 21. But on January 22, Sun Chunlan undertook an “inspection tour” to Wuhan, acting in both her state and Party functions. Sun is the state’s deputy premier as well as a senior CCP Politburo member, and she chairs the state’s “National Patriotic Sanitary Campaign Committee” and “Joint Mechanism for COVID-19 Prevention and Control Work” as well as the CCP’s “Central Leading Group for COVID-19 Work.” In Wuhan, Sun ordered local “Party and government cadres to resolutely prevent the spread of the epidemic to other regions.” Only one day later, on January 23, Wuhan’s headquarters announced the abrupt lockdown of the city. In principle, all individuals were banned from leaving and later also from entering the city. Sun’s “inspection speech” clarified that in addition to Wuhan’s headquarters and Party organs, the local state organs, too, must directly obey the Party center. Therefore, Wuhan’s local People’s Congress openly stated it would act by “call” and “command” not only of the local Party branch but also of the CCP Central Committee.

Third, in exception circumstances, the central level can even act itself in “local affairs” related to COVID-19. This direct approach causes a single, vertical move because the center’s “micromanagement” must still be enforced by local organs. Such a single move characterized the preliminary “endgame” of COVID-19 chess. Originally, Wuhan’s headquarters had allowed individuals to enter and leave the city as “early” as February 24. However, Wuhan revoked this decision the very same day, as it had been made “without the consent of leading comrades” in Beijing. Instead, the central leaders themselves, in their role as state leaders, announced the concrete entry-exit dates for Wuhan. Migrant workers were allowed to enter and leave the city from March 25. Other individuals could enter by train from March 28, and by other means, as well as exit the city, from April 8.

China’s “COVID-19 chess” thus reflects patterns of the country’s central-local system that have been seen for thousands of years. Local units like Wuhan serve as a “pawn sacrifice”: they must deliver the bad news of lockdown and shutdown, and strictly enforce these policies “down on the board.” The central level, in contrast, enjoys the privilege of being the “chess master.” It gives the glad tidings of easing restrictions, and governs the country seemingly by “non-action.” Such “scapegoating,” on the one hand, strengthens central CCP rule because it provides the basis for central leaders’ considerable popularity in China. On the other hand, it endangers Party-state rule because it ruins the confidence of Chinese citizens and academia in the local levels. The more local a unit, the less trusted it is – with negative consequences for the administration of the whole country.

The reason for this “chess blunder” is that Chinese local units can severely restrict the rights of citizens without being accountable toward them. In Wuhan, this resulted in excessive COVID-19 measures encroaching on myriad freedoms of millions of people during several months. In order to secure popular trust in the state and the Party as a whole, China’s central leaders should thus hold local units accountable toward citizens. They should introduce direct elections on the municipal level, strengthen participation in decision-making, and enable individuals to pursue legal remedies against local law and policies affecting them. This would not only avoid defective local policies that ignore the actual needs and interests of the population. It would also keep the constitutional promise of the “People’s” Republic of China: the people being the “master of the country,” during the coronavirus crisis and beyond.

Philipp Renninger, Ref. jur., is an academic assistant at the University of Lucerne (CH). He is reading for a Ph.D. at Lucerne and the University of Freiburg (DE) on Chinese and comparative public law.