Summary

Available open sources indicate that in their domestic handling of the COVID-19 virus, the central Chinese authorities generally followed, ultimately to good effect, established crisis management processes and procedures as well as post-SARS regulations for dealing with a health emergency.  A major exception to this record occurred with regard to the initial reporting on the virus by both local and central authorities, where the pre-existing network reporting system was not utilized early enough and both local and initial central expert teams sent to Wuhan failed to detect the seriousness of the outbreak.  Once the top leadership clearly recognized the gravity of the situation, it moved with at times ruthless efficiency to combat the virus.  Although Xi Jinping and other senior officials subsequently acknowledged that mistakes were made, the center only punished local officials, in an apparent attempt to deflect blame from the top, as was also the case during the SARS epidemic.  Available open sources provide no clear proof that the more extreme charge of a deliberate cover-up of a known deadly and highly contagious outbreak is accurate.  However, they do indicate that the Chinese system remains excessively bureaucratic and consensus-driven, often prizing political criteria over expert-based information and reflexively suppressing unauthorized communications.

Introduction

This is the first of two essays analyzing the COVID-19 outbreak as a case study in a certain type of Chinese crisis management, i.e., an unconventional, prolonged health threat of domestic origins with broad ramifications for Chinese security and PRC regime legitimacy both at home and abroad.  The current essay (Part One) focuses on domestic management of the health dimensions of the crisis, with, for reasons of length, far less attention to the economic dimensions.  The second essay (Part Two), to appear in the next issue of CLM, focuses on the international dimensions of China’s crisis management efforts, in particular the deepening dispute with the United States.

The analysis covers the period from early/mid-December 2019, when the virus was probably first detected in Wuhan, to mid-April 2020, when it had been largely brought under control within China, at least for the time being.  Throughout, the focus is on the perceptions and actions of the central party and government leaderships in managing the crisis, albeit often through interactions with local officials. 

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This article was originally published in the China Leadership Monitor.