A central-local “chess game” – The Diplomat
It is wrong to assume, like most Western media and Chinese propaganda, that COVID-19 in China is 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 considerably. The strictest rules still applied in the first epicenter of the pandemic: the city of Wuhan in Hubei province. Such a local regulatory difference is anything but usual in China. The most populous country in the world rejects federalism as a political “taboo”. The state and the party are not built from the 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 usually becomes even more centralized.
Yet it was precisely in the midst of the coronavirus crisis that Xi Jinping himself refuses to “cut with one knife”. China’s central level has not adopted “comprehensive policies” for the whole country. This is all the more surprising since in the face of COVID-19, highly decentralized countries such as Switzerland and Austria have resorted to “one-size-fits-all” national regulations.
It is, however, fair to ultimately trace China’s COVID-19 containment to the central level. Xi asks treat “the whole country as one game of chess”. This means that the containment of the pandemic must be locally differentiated, but its fundamental decisions must always be commanded or at least approved by the center. Cities and provinces will thus enact their own measures, but as “agents” of the centre. This central-local COVID-19 “chess game” is played by the rules not of the state but of the Communist Party (CCP) as the CCP “leads over everything”, including the state, the army and the people.
There are therefore other “pieces” on the Chinese “chessboard” than in liberal democracies. At the national level, the organs of the Party are headed by the same people as the central organs of the state. At the local level, on the other hand, Party secretaries are not identical to local heads of state, but rather superior to them. This results from the Internal CCP Hierarchy: Wuhan Party Secretary Wang Zhonglin ranks above Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang, who is only the city’s deputy Party secretary. In the coronavirus crisis, new local chess pieces have been added, in particular the ad hoc “Wuhan Headquarters for COVID-19 Prevention and Control”. In violation of national lawthis seat is a joint state-party body. It is chaired by both Party Secretary Wang and Mayor Zhou, and composed of both government and Party committee members.
Moreover, the central level uses these chess pieces differently than in liberal democracies. The center controls and directs local units not through state channels but through a conduit: the Communist Party. This allows for three types of sophisticated “chess moves”.
First in “normal time”, the center regularly performs a triple movement: horizontal-vertical-horizontal. The central state leaders act as Party leaders (a horizontal movement between the Party and the state at the same level of governance) in order to command the municipal branch of the CCP in Wuhan (a vertical movement between the levels of governance ). The Wuhan CCP organs then control and influence the Wuhan state organs (another horizontal movement). Such a triple move has decisively tightened the containment of the pandemic in the “midgame” of COVID-19 chess. At On February 10, Wuhan introduced “closed management” for all neighborhoods, without providing details at this time. This change in orientation stemmed from the decision of the center of replace the Party secretaries of Wuhan and Hubei, which had failed to contain the pandemic. Wuhan’s new Party Secretary Wang Zhonglin, appointed on Feb. 13, immediately implemented the center’s strict line on COVID-19. Just a day later, the On February 14, Wuhan tightened “closed management” to include a curfew for most of the population and a closure of public life.
Second, in “crisis mode”, this chain of command is often reduced to a double movement: horizontal-vertical. During the coronavirus crisis, central state leaders, still in their role as Party leaders, mainly give direct orders to the Wuhan COVID-19 headquarters. As a joint State-Party body, the headquarters is directly linked to the command of the CPC Central Committee. Such a double move led to the “opening” of the COVID-19 chess game: Originally, the Wuhan headquarters had only soft measures planned, such as promoting handwashing and canceling mass events from January 21. But on Jan. 22, Sun Chunlan embarked on an “inspection tour” of Wuhan, acting in both state and party duties. Sun is the state’s deputy premier as well as a senior member of the CPC Politburo, and she chairs the “National Patriotic Health Campaign Committee” and the “Joint Mechanism for COVID-19 Prevention and Control Work.” 19” as well as the “Central Leading Group for Work Related to COVID-19. » In Wuhan, the sun ordered “local Party and government cadres to resolutely prevent the spread of the epidemic to other areas”. Just a day later, the On January 23, the Wuhan headquarters announced the abrupt lockdown from the city. In principle, all individuals were forbidden to leave and later also to enter the city. Sun’s “inspection speech” clarified that in addition to the Wuhan headquarters and Party organs, local state organs must also obey the Party center directly. So, Wuhan local People’s Congress openly said it would act by “call” and “command” not only from the local Party branch but also from the CPC Central Committee.
Third, in exceptional circumstances, the central level may even act itself in “local affairs” related to COVID-19. This direct approach causes only one vertical displacement because the “micromanagement” of the center must still be ensured by the local bodies. Such a unique move characterized the preliminary “endgame” of COVID-19 chess. Originally, the Wuhan siege allowed individuals to enter and exit the city as “early” as February 24. However, Wuhan revoked this decision the same day, because it had been made “without the consent of the leading comrades” in Beijing. Instead, the the central leaders themselves, in their role as heads of state, announced concrete entry and exit dates for Wuhan. Migrant workers were allowed in and out of the city from March 25. Other people could enter by train from March 28, and by other means, as well as leave the city, from April 8.
China’s “COVID-19 failures” thus reflect patterns of the country’s central-local system that have been observed for thousands of years. Local units like Wuhan serve as a “pawn sacrifice”: they must announce the bad news of the lockdown and shutdown, and strictly enforce those policies “on the board”. The central level, on the other hand, enjoys the privilege of being the “chess master”. He gives the good news of the easing of restrictions and rules the country ostensibly by “inaction”. Such a “scapegoat”, on the one hand, strengthens the central power of the CCP because it provides the basis for the considerable popularity of central leaders in China. On the other hand, it endangers the Party-state regime because it undermines the trust of Chinese citizens and scholars in local levels. The more local a unit is, the less it is trusted – with negative consequences for the administration of the whole country.
The reason for this “chess mistake” is that Chinese local units can severely restrict the rights of citizens without being accountable to them. In Wuhan, this has resulted in excessive COVID-19 measures that have encroached on myriad freedoms of millions of people for several months. In order to ensure popular trust in the state and the Party as a whole, China’s central leaders should therefore hold local units accountable to the citizens. They should introduce direct elections at the municipal level, strengthen participation in decision-making and allow individuals to pursue legal remedies against local laws and policies that affect them. This would not only avoid flawed local policies that ignore the real needs and interests of the population. It would also fulfill the constitutional promise of the “People’s” Republic of China: the 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 preparing a doctorate. in Lucerne and at the University of Friborg (DE) in Chinese public and comparative law.