China’s approach to the pandemic exposes its democratic deficit to the public glare

China has adopted a zero-case approach to the coronacrisis. But, writes Rongxin Li, China’s policies, while claiming to be in the interests of its citizens, show a lack of democratic anchoring, sometimes sacrificing civil rights and procedural justice

In mid-2021, China celebrated its apparent triumph over the Covid-19 pandemic. Evidently, the country's leaders were confident that the coronavirus would not return. But China’s handling of the pandemic has resulted in huge internal frictions, laying bare the deficiencies of the Chinese political model.

As the crisis continues, public grievances are accumulating, and are likely to reach a critical point. This places the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the country, in a dilemma. Should China continue its current approach to the crisis, or should the CCP re-evaluate its highly restrictive measures?

Fighting the pandemic – the biggest politics

At the dawn of the coronacrisis, in early 2020, no one could have predicted how long the pandemic would last. Restrictions were imposed across the world, none as tight as in China. With the programme of mass vaccination significantly reducing severe illness and deaths from Covid-19, restrictions began to ease throughout 2021, even in China. Yet, while the West has, to varying extents, been trying to 'live with Covid', in China the reversion to restrictions to contain outbreaks of the virus has never been far away. For the CCP, protecting human life is always a priority, and it therefore dares not relinquish control.

This approach has led to increased nationalism, populism, xenophobia, and anti-globalism. The swift and extreme countermeasures against contagion certainly protected human life in the immediate term. For Chinese citizens, however, there was a trade-off.

According to CCP propaganda, China’s pandemic management is the best in the world

If you believe CCP propaganda, China’s pandemic management is the best in the world, and the people support its approach. Yet the reality is that many CCP policies are one-size-fits-all – and this compromises the diverse needs of different sections of China's population. Worse, the Chinese approach has sacrificed civil rights and procedural justice, including freedom of speech. From a democratic viewpoint, China's ‘zero cases’ policy could turn out to be catastrophic. If nothing else, it exposes its democratic deficiencies to the public glare.

Centralised and rigid authoritarianism

China might boast about the effectiveness and efficiency of its pandemic management, but the fact is that Western democracies are highly unlikely to implement comparable measures, so it is not a question of failed emulation.

To take an example, the city of Xi'an saw an upsurge of 1,856 new cases between 9 December 2021 and 6 January 2022. The Chinese authorities reacted swiftly, imposing a total lockdown on the city. Governments in the West wouldn't regard such case numbers as a particularly big deal. But China treated the outbreak as a serious incident, reminiscent of Wuhan's lockdown at the very start of the pandemic, during which a city of more than 12 million people shut down instantly.

Chinese authorities reacted swiftly to the recent outbreak in Xi'an, imposing a total lockdown on the city

Criticisms about the inhumanity of China’s pandemic measures are nothing new. But the CCP disregards such criticism, justifying its policies using Chinese ideology, discourse, and governance.

The CCP claims, for example, that its people-oriented democracy emphasises the autonomy of the people. In reality, it is the CCP that makes decisions for the people. The Whole-Process-Democracy proposed by Xi Jinping also indicates that substance is more important than process. The result is the marginalisation of procedural justice in the process of promoting democracy.

No one to take the blame

China’s government prioritises efficiency and results over all else. The lockdown of Xi’an took only one day. Yet the authorities failed to consider how citizens should subsequently get food, how they could work, or access medical treatment. Dissent, public grievances and criticisms are suppressed by officials or quashed by fanatical patriots. So-called 'free speech' must serve, and submit to, China's overall interests.

The CCP’s one-party regime is often described as governing with 'authoritarian resilience'. The party claims to be responsive, accountable and open to change. Yet, the unexpected pandemic has made CCP resilience even more rigid, while 'hierarchical accountability' has resulted in the dismissal of thousands of officials. In future, no one will dare take responsibility.

Nationalism or patriotism? Pride or inferiority?

Nationalism is the main resource of the CCP’s legitimacy. In practice, however, China's nationalism and patriotism are difficult to separate entirely. China’s ‘unified state concept’ and ‘few immigrations and refugee problems’ have blurred the boundaries between the two.

Indoctrinated by CCP patriotism, fanatics will always defend state sovereignty, at home and on the world stage. Such fanatics are quick to stifle any expressions of opinion that do not align with state interests.

Indoctrinated by CCP patriotism, fanatics will always defend state sovereignty

In recent decades, populism has prevailed in China. The CCP must therefore manage its image with great care if it wants to maintain authority in the long term.

The rise of China over recent decades has built pride in the Chinese nation among its people. But this pride is beginning to look rather fragile. The Chinese people are proud of their country's strength and power in the world, but they are, at the same time, increasingly unwilling to accept criticism of their country.

The CCP is likely to use this self-deception to mobilise mass antagonism to Western ideologies. But its management of the pandemic and putative superiority in doing so has simply drawn more attention to the political system's authoritarian character. And the question is whether this might, in the long-term, enhance dissent.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Rongxin Li
Rongxin Li
Postdoctoral Fellow, Peking University and Research Center for Chinese Politics

Rongxin gained his PhD from the Research Center of Sociological and Political Study in Paris, and Paris 8 University.

His main research focuses are Chinese politics, (deliberative) democracy, authoritarianism, and dictatorship.

He tweets @li_rongxin

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