As China emerges from the grips of COVID-19, there is potential for it to become a global leader in managing the pandemic and provide assistance to other countries. But what does the latest pandemic tell us about the durability of authoritarian regimes, like China? Furthermore, given its recent experiences with a national crisis, such as SARS or the Sichuan earthquake, what is the role of civil society in managing the impacts of such national emergencies? If we take China’s previous experience with SARS as a reference, we would expect that the diffusion of information would be part of the crucial response infrastructure to mitigate transmission and deaths. However, the current and previous health crises suggest that the response pattern to these epidemics has done little to alter how the Chinese Party-state responds to such challenges.
Considering the relationship between China’s central and local authorities and their engagement with civil society in the times of COVID-19 will shed light on the durability of Chinese authoritarianism.
Central-local relations and information diffusion
The cover-up of medical information, mainly related to the extent of infections by provincial-level officials, has occurred repeatedly. Early failures in addressing health crisis over the years, such as HIV, included a combination of official denial, slow response times, inadequate surveillance, reporting, and treatment facilities contributed to the rapid increase in infection rates from the first reported case in the 1980s to the late 1990s. In addition, the selling of blood by poor farmers in Henan province to government-operated blood banks without proper health and hygiene practice led to whole villages becoming infected. The cover-up was finally exposed by Wang Shuping and Gao Yaojie in the mid-1990s.
The SARS epidemic of 2003 followed a similar pattern. Chinese health experts were alerted to the then-unknown disease as early as mid-December 2002. Further testing was conducted in early January 2003, with results sent to the Ministry of Health in late January. Still, it wasn’t until nearly mid-February that Guangdong officials broke the news. Even still, Chinese journalists and newspaper editors were arrested in April 2003 to spread “rumours” and publish official documents related to SARS.
To COVID-19: between the end of December 2019 and January 2020, the China National Health Commission sent three teams to Wuhan to collect evidence of COVID-19 but were hampered by local officials, seeking to look calm in their annual meeting with local and provincial officials of Hubei. Ai Fen, a physician at Wuhan Central Hospital, shared the SARS-like results of her test with Li Wenliang and alerted hospital authorities, but was subsequently reprimanded for “spreading rumours and causing trouble … and causing social panic”. The Wuhan municipal health commission closely monitored and chaperoned visiting expert teams. Experts were told by hospital leadership and doctors that there was no human-to-human transmission. But the subsequent diagnosis of members of the expert teams tells us otherwise.
Central-local relations in the time of COVID-19 has not changed since the 1980s. The transmission of information upwards remains a persistent problem. Local authorities fear the conveying of such information may lead to possible punishments in a system based on compliance—lower levels of the state much respond, comply and implement orders received from above. With Xi Jinping in power since 2012, central-local relations only reinforced this compliance relationship. The anti-corruption drive launched shortly after Xi came into power of catching “tigers and flies” demonstrate that compliance is demanded across the multilayered hierarchy that makes up the Chinese political system. With the re-centralisation of power under Xi, it would seem counter-intuitive to see the role of civil society playing a part in the COVID-19 response.
The role of civil society
COVID-19 has reinforced the strength of the Party-state while simultaneously allowing civil society organisations to build their capacity to respond to emergencies. Yet, COVID-19 has provided the state with an opportunity to articulate the parameters for civil society organisations in no uncertain terms.
Previous national emergencies, such as the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, saw spontaneous civic action from volunteers assisting rescue efforts to individual donations to charitable organisations. Although these activities have occurred in response to COVID-19, they have been directed and managed by the central state. Moreover, the implementation of the “Overseas NGO Law” in 2017 has severely restricted the autonomy and capacity of civil society organisations. Still, at the same time, it has given a particular sector of organisations more significant space to perform their duties—that is, fundraising.
Fundraising is an area where we have seen relative flexibility given to state-affiliated charities to fundraise for COVID relief. Permits to fundraise were granted to public foundations, charities, and a few primary social service delivery NGOs. By early April 2020, a total of US $4.9 billion had been raised. These organisations were allowed to raise money online but only through 20 pre-approved internet platforms by the Ministry of Civil Affairs. Further restrictions applied to recipients of the fundraising. Only five state-affiliated foundations in Hubei could receive donations. Put another way, Hubei civil society organisations could not directly receive funds raised nationally to address the pandemic. What seemed like an expansion of space for civil society to respond to a national crisis, was in fact, heavily circumscribed with the restrictive interpretation and application of the existing “Charity Law”, passed in 2016.
By the end of May 2020, 8.81 million registered volunteers were deployed across 460,00 different projects and totalling 290 million hours of voluntary work. Such figures are impressive, but like fundraising, volunteering was initiated and managed by the Party-state. For example, research into volunteering in Zhejiang province in early 2021 showed volunteer activity was organised under the direction of the state. The channelling of volunteers via state agencies, such as the Communist Youth League and local Party branches, indicate not only the Party-state’s resilience but its efforts to re-centralise its power by bringing back the social responsibilities it had offloaded during the height of China’s reform.
As shown in the current pandemic, little has changed in the way central and local Chinese state interacts and shares information. While having a much more significant role in response to the pandemic, civil society organisations are subservient to the Party-state. COVID-19 has only highlighted the efforts and extent taken by the Party-state to re-centralise its power and lengthen its longevity.