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China’s Performative Zero-COVID Policy

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China’s Performative Zero-COVID Policy

To bolster their standing during the pandemic, local cadres are putting a new twist on the concept of performative governance.

China’s Performative Zero-COVID Policy
Credit: Depositphotos

Politicians as performers have a long history in liberal democracy; after all, politicians must “sell” their images to attract voters. The modern era of performance in U.S. politics can be traced to the introduction of televised debates in the 1960 presidential election. Democratic Party candidate John F. Kennedy demonstrated his energy, composure, and attractiveness while his opponent, Richard Nixon, sweated in front of the camera. While radio listeners of the debate supported Nixon’s policy message, TV viewers predominantly voted for Kennedy, demonstrating the political power of performance.

Since Kennedy, U.S. presidents have embraced performance to show their charisma. From Ronald Reagan’s Soviet Union jokes to Bill Clinton’s saxophone solo, performance became a key campaign strategy to demonstrate a politician’s affinity with the general public. Two modern giants of political performance, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, used their speeches and gestures to attract attention and mobilize voter bases, which became key to their electoral victories.

However, as Professor Iza Ding shows in her book, “The Performative State: Public Scrutiny and Environmental Governance in China,” political performances are not exclusive to liberal democracy. Officials in authoritarian states like China employs political performances to achieve their policy agenda. The performative governance framework is one of the most ingenious explanations of China’s policy implementation. It is the state’s deployment of visual, verbal, and gestural symbols of good governance for the audience of citizens. According to Ding, performative governance rises from the duality of Chinese street-level cadres: they are both bureaucrats in a vast state machine and politicians in front of their local constituencies.

Kevin J. O’Brien pioneered the study of bureaucratic control over Chinese officials by detailing the cadre responsibility system. In this system, each cadre receives numerous policy goals from the higher level. Higher officials evaluate lower cadres’ performances by measuring how well they have met these goals. As a result, local officials prioritize completing measurable “hard targets,” which weigh more in cadre evaluation, than unquantifiable and less significant “soft targets.” Since the Chinese Communist Party’s effort to improve governance capability in the 2000s, local government’s responsiveness to peoples’ demands became a policy goal in the cadre responsibility system.

Local governments established “mayor’s mailboxes” and other online complaint platforms, and officials must reply to every complaint within a short time period. Local governments also conduct surveys and polls to measure residents’ satisfaction with government performance. According to one interviewee, these polls and surveys play a minimal role in the cadre responsibility system. However, local officials might face harsh punishment if a complaint gets out of hand and cause severe public outcry. Mass incidents have veto power in cadres’ evaluation. In addition, cadres will also receive punishment if they receive negative public attention. An official in Hubei was punished for his ill-tempered reply to an online complaint, which received widespread public criticism.

As a result, Ding identifies the two requirements for performative governance as high public scrutiny and low government capability. High public scrutiny means that the public deeply cares about a particular issue. Thus, local governments’ unresponsiveness on this issue will likely provoke a broader public outcry. Low government capability means local governments do not have the ability to solve this problem. Therefore, officials employ performative governance to persuade people that they are hard at work, albeit without bringing concrete results. Usually, officials lower themselves to the public to show benevolence and show their efforts to convey that they are actively solving the problem.

However, performative governance has its limitation. A performative breakdown occurs when people realize that the government’s works are performative rather than substantive. The breakdown usually leads to heavy public criticism, because people realize that the government is actively trying to fool them. Under this situation, the higher-level government often punishes local officials for their formalistic governance (形式主义) to pacify public outcry.

The zero-COVID policy illustrates another aspect of performative governance in China, which I’ll call performative governance 2.0. Under this framework, local cadres cede their politician role to the bureaucrat role; they follow orders from superiors in the bureaucracy rather than trying to appeal to their constituencies.

The zero-COVID policy is a mass mobilization campaign in which cadres are mobilized to complete one single task from the central government. Thus, they are evaluated based on their efforts to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak rather than any other criteria. As a result, popular criticisms play a diminished role in cadre evaluation; people lose the ability to check local officials through collective complaints. Enforcing zero-COVID measures became much more important than satisfying the people, and officials who strictly implemented the zero-COVID policy received promotion despite popular disapproval.

For example, Hao Jianjun, the mayor of Dandong, who was forced to apologize for draconian lockdown measures following anti-quarantine protests, did not receive any punishment. Widespread criticism also did not prevent Shanghai Party Secretary Li Qiang from entering the Politburo Standing Committee at the 20th Party Congress and presumably becoming the next premier come March.

For local governments, ensuring zero-COVID is a high-profile and low-capability task. Most localities in China still require a COVID test once every two or three days from everyone. In the most extreme case, the Zhengzhou government forced people to conduct COVID-19 tests twice a day in mid-October. Following the tests, the local government must make daily announcements on the test results. If a positive case is detected, the government must identify and announce its exact location and conduct thorough contact tracing.

In contrast to this high scrutiny from the top, however, the local government has limited capability to ensure zero COVID. As the Omicron variant became the dominant strain, transmission has increased; Omicron is four times as transmissible as the Delta variant. In addition, even asymptomatic patients can spread the virus to others. Thus, it becomes increasingly impossible to completely annihilate an outbreak and achieve zero COVID.

In Urumqi, even though the city government enforced strict home quarantine rules since August – residents cannot leave their homes without taking a COVID-19 test – the city still had 691 positive cases on November 12. After almost 100 days, the lockdown still cannot break the transmission chain.

While the higher evaluators can scrutinize daily COVID-19 cases, they cannot control zero-COVID implementation in every locality, which creates room for performative governance. Due to the diminishing importance of popular opinion in a mobilization campaign, the audience of performative governance 2.0 is bureaucratic superiors, not local constituencies. Rather than showing their benevolence toward the people, local cadres demonstrate their unreserved support of central policy. Their performances often drew heavy criticism from the public – classic cases of performative breakdown.

Local governments conducted PCR tests in extreme places and manners to demonstrate their hard work, but these demonstrations often drew heavy criticism and mockery from people. For example, medical staff conducted PCR tests on fish by swabbing in their mouth, which drew heavy ridicule from netizens because fish do not even have lungs. In another case, cadres gathered nomads living secluded lifestyles to conduct COVID-19 tests. As one online commenter joked, “The first responders successfully found them even though the virus can’t.”

Despite these performative breakdowns, no official was punished, and cadres continued these ridiculous measures, which shows that their targeted audiences are higher-level officials rather than the public.

Ding’s phenomenal work identified correctly that political performance is not exclusive to liberal democracy. Officials in authoritarian regimes like China employ performative governance to appeal to local constituencies by demonstrating benevolence and hard work. But during the pandemic, a different dynamic is at play. Though mass mobilization diminishes the importance of popular input in cadre evaluation, cadres still conduct performative governance – except the target audience switches to higher evaluators.

However, this switch in the audience creates challenges for the government. The strength of performative governance depends on the local cadres’ ability and willingness to appeal to people. In contrast, the 2.0 framework disregards popular opinion and often draws heavy criticism. In fact, people believe local governments are treating them as fools through these performances. Instead of winning support and understanding from the people, performative governance 2.0 heightens the conflicts between an unpopular policy and popular discontent, further undermining the support for mobilization.