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The "China Model" Revisited: Political Economy of China in the Post-COVID-19 Era

This week’s #GLOVicariously webinar featured Dr. Xin Sun, Assistant Professor in Chinese and East Asian Business at King’s College London, who teaches the Political Economy of Contemporary China course for students studying abroad on the China: Political & Economic Development summer Northwestern study abroad program. In this webinar, Dr. Sun discussed the “China Model,” the unique Chinese governance model, with respect to China’s political economy in the post-COVID-19 era.

Dr. Sun explained three main features of the “China Model,” the unique Chinese governance structure: authoritarianism, political centralization, and strong state capacity. While the latter is “a necessary condition for any effective governance, both in democratic and authoritarian contexts,” Dr. Sun argued that authoritarianism and political centralization were key components that affected the Chinese government’s response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Specifically, Dr. Sun argued that authoritarianism in China, including an “intrusive state government and limited respect of civil liberties and individual rights” allowed the Chinese government to adopt “draconian measures to impose isolation, tracking, and quarantine” at the expense of people’s civil liberties. Dr. Sun also said that while restrictive and invasive to personal privacy, these measures “proved to be extremely effective in limiting the spread of the pandemic.”

The political centralization model of China concentrates power in central party leaders, limiting the power and resources of local government officials; as a result, Dr. Sun noted that party leaders’ distrust of local officials is “completely entrenched” due to fear of political challengers, especially during times of crisis. This contributed to local officials’ initial slowness to act in response to the pandemic—waiting for authorization and resources from central government leaders.

“This system is designed for normal times to curb the discretion and power of local officials, but it is not suitable for a crisis” such as a pandemic, Dr. Sun said. In a pandemic, rather, local officials need institutional power and authority to expropriate resources to meet emergency needs in their area. 

After the central Chinese government acknowledged the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Dr. Sun said that local government officials then engaged in a “tournament” of sorts, adopting “very dramatic measures” to flatten the curve and contain the pandemic, including overreacting, underreporting cases, and adopting a “not in my backyard” mentality. For example, some local officials destroyed roads in rural areas to prevent travel of potentially infected individuals into their region.

Dr. Sun also attributes this response to the China Model. “A weak performance [in containing the pandemic] would make local officials appear disloyal to President Xi or demonstrate incompetence,” he said.

Ultimately, Dr. Sun argued that the Chinese government’s model concentrates power and curbs local official discretion, power, and resources. He argued that had the central Chinese government responded sooner to the outbreak and been more transparent with the public, the pandemic may have been contained sooner in China and perhaps even across the world.

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About #GLOVicariously Webinar Series: 

Amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing anti-racism protests, global engagement across difference and development of intercultural skills are critically needed to build a more just and peaceful world. We want to continue fostering global learning opportunities for students throughout this summer 2020 through our virtual webinar series, #GLOVicariously. #GLOVicariously webinars feature speakers involved in GLO programs who have expertise on a variety of critical global issues. View upcoming #GLOVicariously webinars.