Features | Politics | East Asia

Coronavirus and China’s Decision-Making in a Crisis

The contours of the Chinese response have remained largely the same from SARS in 2003 to today’s coronavirus outbreak.

By Matthew Sullivan for
Coronavirus and China’s Decision-Making in a Crisis

A computer screen shows Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital in Wuhan as a currency trader works at the foreign exchange dealing room of the KEB Hana Bank headquarters in Seoul, South Korea, Jan. 28, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

The coronavirus outbreak could not occur at a more inconvenient time for Chinese leaders. 2019 was not a particularly pretty year for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). They faced significant economic pressure from the U.S.-China trade war, international opposition to China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang, an outbreak of swine fever that decimated China’s pork industry, and protracted civil unrest in Hong Kong. Even though several of these challenges have begun to subside, it does not appear that 2020 will offer significant relief for the CCP leadership.

On January 23, 2020, the Chinese leadership ordered a quarantine on Wuhan, China, halting public transportation in an effort to contain an outbreak of Coronavirus, which at that time, had infected about 600 people with 17 deaths. By February 10, the number of infections had surpassed 40,000, with over 900 deaths, superseding the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak in sheer numbers.

Despite the unfortunate timing and severity of the coronavirus, the CCP leadership’s crisis response has not drastically deviated from a historic model decision making model that leaves the Party vulnerable to group-think and indecision from internal and external squabbles. The CCP regime under Xi Jinping, coming out of the whirlwind of international and domestic challenges, is in a brittle place in terms of its political capital should the regime fail to either conjure an effective response and resolution to the crisis or maintain the Party’s face and legitimacy.

Modern China’s crisis decision-making has historically been characterized as a balancing act between preventing a negative escalation of the situation and advancing key interests. In terms of an outbreak, this means both addressing the situation to mitigate its negative outputs (both disease and non-disease) and reducing the CCP leadership’s exposure to public criticism at home and abroad. While these are not entirely mutually exclusive objectives, they can highlight interests and stakeholders, which could rub against each other in acute, time-sensitive circumstances. This trade-off can be seen in several non-military crises such as the 2002-2003 SARs virus outbreak. Analysts have identified that China’s political responses under duress depend on Beijing’s perceptions of the situation and of itself in relation to the challenge or adversary; the state of China’s “domestic environment” and internal enthusiasm for the Party’s decision-making; the structure and dynamics of the decision-making apparatus responding to the issue; and “idiosyncratic” factors such as leadership personalities.

The legitimacy of the Central Party has always taken a key role in Chinese government decisions. For example, during China’s last major health crisis, the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak, the Chinese leadership veered on the side of caution and indecision in hopes that the crisis might be resolved by the existing structures, believing that public acknowledgement would undermine the CCP’s credibility. The Chinese government, in fact, took specific steps to ensure a strict control of the information flows and research, leading to the purge of both health minister Zhang Wenkang and the mayor of Beijing, Meng Xuenong, after the government admitted that the SARS outbreak was 10 times worse than previously disclosed.

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Careful analysis shows that such delayed and secretive responses from CCP leaders or institutions are not an entirely unique occurrence, particularly when put into a broader historic or economic context. In the case of the SARS outbreak, the response came in the larger context of the Party’s senior leadership transition from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao, China’s rapid economic transformation, as well as China’s increasing international integration. In this system, major political events frequently involve significant jockeying and positioning amongst the Party leadership with senior members trying to avoid appearing politically vulnerable, which is not conducive to resolving highly publicized situations — whether this be the 1989 Tiananmen crisis, the 2001 EP-3 crash on Hainan Island, or the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. As a result, in public or health crises, not only do leaders tend to prefer behind-the-scenes, consensus-based decisions, but authorities are less likely to acknowledge and account for empirical data and objective analysis when completing viable options.

In the context of China’s historic obsession with Party legitimacy alongside competing institutional and personal politics, there is actually a significant amount of continuity in the way the Chinese government has responded to the 2019-2020 coronavirus outbreak compared to its past crisis decision-making. Facing a health crisis from the novel coronavirus, the Chinese government has taken several steps to mitigate the virus’s spread and reassure the public of the CCP’s control of the situation, with an emphasis on the latter. As Michael Swaine points out, in both military and non-military political crises, signaling is important to bolster the regime’s credibility by communicating resolve of the Party leadership to both domestic and foreign audiences.

Throughout late January, state media outlets proclaimed confidence in how Xi Jinping was handling the outbreak and offered assurances that the epidemic would be ultimately resolved under the leadership of CCP. China’s media was rife with articles and pictures of masked healthcare workers dispensing masks to the public, despite experts noting that masks do not actually offer significant protection from the virus as much as basic hygienic practices. These images no doubt serve the same purpose as similar practices in the SARS outbreak — visually signaling and reassuring the public that healthcare administrators and officials are quickly responding to the crisis. Later, many Western media-outlets noted that the central leadership surprisingly admitted to “shortcomings and deficiencies” in China’s handling of the outbreak. However, Chinese state media coverage has subsequently downplayed or totally ignored this admission.

This brings us to another pattern seen in Chinese crisis scenarios, which is the dodging of responsibility by the central Party leadership. One commentator has argued that the CCP has been surprisingly tolerant of criticism in social and public media platforms aimed at the local-level and provincial-level government’s response, all too happy to shift blame away from central figures. The Party has also removed low-level officials deemed derelict in their management of local infection cases in an effort to “enforce discipline and correct working style of Party members and government officials.” Similarly, the Central Party via the Supreme People’s Court recently criticized the Wuhan authorities’ January 1 arrest of a Chinese doctor, Li Weliang, who had attempted to warn the public over social media platforms of a possible outbreak. When the same doctor later died of the coronavirus, sparking widespread outrage, the National Supervisory Commission announced it was opening an investigation into the case. These instances of tension between the central and local party apparatuses reflect a juggling act between maintaining CCP legitimacy and the need to sufficiently inform the public of a health threat.

These calculations come at a cost. In shifting blame to lower-level elites and experts, the Party essentially accepts two risks to effectively managing, preventing, or resolving such a crisis. First is the risk that, by permitting the degradation of local-level official credibility, the government is potentially decreasing local and regional expertise or experience these administrators bring to the table rather than mitigating inefficiency. And, as Zaisu Zhang indicates, this could also end up damaging the credibility of the central leadership in the long term. Second, and perhaps more immediately, shifting blame could discourage lower and mi-level officials from taking initiative, thus inducing a provincial or nation-wide group-think utterly dependent on the whims and idiosyncrasies of the Politburo, which detracts from readiness and flexibility in a crisis-scenario.

Moreover, China’s signaling also indicates that the Party is not only worried about keeping up appearances to domestic audiences, but remains sensitive to international opinion as well. China’s self-image — as well as its perceptions of others — can play a role in decision-making, even in a crisis that is generally framed as a national crisis rather than an international one. China continues to have a deep-seated insecurity about its interactions with foreign powers, particularly peer powers. Because of China’s growing influence in global markets and regional politics, it is now subject to even more scrutiny by other countries over its handling of both domestic and international affairs than it was during the SARS crisis.

Throughout the coronavirus outbreak, China’s state media has frequently portrayed the interests and perceptions of China and international institutions, such as the WHO, as congruent. However, several articles and columns in Chinese news sources (some of them in the same article) have warned that foreign criticism of the leadership’s handling of the health crisis is counterproductive or that travel and commercial restrictions on China by other countries such as the United States are unwarranted fear-mongering. One such article in the People’ Daily claimed that the U.S. is attempting to “score points against China” in its criticisms of CCP response measures. These contrary views reflect China’s long-held neuralgia that foreign states are prepared to take advantage of China’s vulnerability, and that traditional powers seek to obstruct China’s inevitable path to greatness. As other scholars have noted, this perception becomes more acute when the CCP experiences significant and sudden pressures. However, given the recent significant negative attention the international community has given to China’s human right’s violations in Xinjiang, the Hong Kong protests, and Beijing’s aggressions against other states in Asia and the Pacific, it should not come as a surprise that Chinese authorities are highly suspicious of the intensified attention China has received from foreign media and governments.

The reality is that China appears to be struggling in its containment of the coronavirus outbreak as the number of deaths climbs above that of SARS, and as foreigners have significantly reduced their travel and commerce with China. The resulting economic pressure, which has greatly alarmed the Party’s senior leadership, comes at an unfortunate time as many U.S. tariffs remain on Chinese goods in the short term despite the recent trade deal. Certainly, such a public health concern would be a significant challenge for any country with a densely urban population. However, the contradiction between China’s confidence, particularly during the month of January, and the exponential rise in coronavirus cases (as well as the reports of individual officials who have indicated under-preparedness in the government’s response) would indicate that the Chinese system remains relatively opaque and secretive in how it reacts to public political and security stimuli under pressure.

China continues to navigate through the boundaries it has developed through past public and foreign crises: the thin line between acknowledgement and effective response to the challenge and the need to maintain the central leadership’s face in dealing with their own public. While history has long shown the CCP’s remarkable resilience in the face of political turmoil and national security challenges, given China’s enormous weight in regional and international politics, which has shined a spotlight on Chinese diplomatic and political behaviors and continued economic pressures, this line appears to be thinning and more perilous to walk.

Matthew Sullivan is a projects coordinator at the East-West Center in Washington. The views expressed in this article are the authors’ alone and do not reflect those of the East-West Center.