China’s pandemic management and authoritarian resilience

Unlike Western nations, China is reintroducing restrictions to counter the latest wave of Covid-19. Rongxin Li explains China's pandemic policy, and its apparent acceptance by the Chinese people in the context of authoritarian resilience

Authoritarian resilience and China

Broadly speaking, there are two explanations for authoritarian resilience. The first is that non-democratic regimes, for all their outward appearances, are essentially ‘temporary’ in nature. They simply resist a tide which will ultimately see them either collapse or transition to democratic forms.

The second is that these regimes are here for the long term. Regimes maintain themselves using authoritarian techniques (such as one-party rule) combined with the adoption of some quasi-democratic political reforms. One explanation of resilience is predicated on ‘regime change’, the other on ‘change in the regime’.

China is an example of authoritarian resilience. Traditional explanations (for example, Andrew Nathan) of China’s resilience emphasise the mix of top-down authoritarian rule with ‘controllable’ reforms; the norm-bound succession politics; an increase in meritocratic politics; differentiation and functional specialisation of institutions in the regime; and institutionalised, yet limited, participation and deliberation.

The importance of popular support

The element that many overlook is bottom-up popular support, the lack of which tends to render authoritarianism fragile. Popular support does not simply mean that people are willing to let regimes restrict and enslave them. Rather, it means that they have a different understanding of democracy and how they could or should be democratically governed.

Bottom-up popular support is often missing from traditional explanations of China's authoritarian resilience

In China, two things are clear. First, a strong and efficient government is preferable to a weak and inefficient one. And second, Chinese people’s understanding of democracy is bound up with how they perceive their country’s success in the world. This is especially pertinent at a time when many perceive Western democracy to be in decline, at least normatively. This enhances the desirability of identifying with the Chinese alternative.

Chinese democracy and its Western mirror

There is a paradox at the heart of our understanding of Chinese democracy. The vast majority of observers do not think that China is a democracy. But Chinese people’s perceptions of the degree to which they are governed democratically remains high. What explains this paradox?

The vast majority of observers do not think that China is a democracy. But the Chinese people do not seem to share this view

Shi Tianjian and his colleagues have conducted surveys confirming the high levels of support among Chinese people for the Chinese Communist Party, the government, and the state. Yet, in an authoritarian state with restrictions on free speech, we must question how accurately these surveys reflect people's true thinking. There is certainly evidence of high public dissatisfaction in certain sectors; the nurses’ protests in Shanghai, for example.

These (non-mass) protests pose little threat to the regime’s overall stability. But maintaining order and social stability remains China’s biggest concern. Premier Li Keqiang recently restated the government’s main goal for 2022 – maintenance of the six stabilisations: employment, finance, foreign trade, capital, investment, and expectations.

A delicate balancing act

The Covid-19 pandemic is a case in point. Here, the Chinese Communist Party plays out a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, the party will only loosen pandemic restrictions when it appears completely safe to do so. This is because China’s performance in managing Covid-19 is, for the party, emblematic of the superiority of the Chinese regime over liberal democracies.

On the other hand, this latest Covid outbreak has meant reimposing restrictions. The Chinese public has received these restrictions with increasing dissatisfaction. Yet the ruling party is, at the same time, probably aware that, having indoctrinated the public with its propaganda for so long, a policy of laissez-faire is not feasible. It would rattle the public and lead to other forms of public dissatisfaction.

Covid-19 and the Chinese democratic model

China’s management of the pandemic, then, is about much more than just the pandemic itself. It concerns the reconsolidation of people’s identification with Chinese democracy, as filtered through the mirror of Western democratic failings. In China’s ‘people-centred’ framing of democracy it is the ‘people’ who are most valued. The Chinese Communist Party therefore vigorously propagandises its Covid statistics. In China, a relatively low death rate compares favourably with Covid mortality in Western countries, particularly the United States.

For ordinary people, the mortality rate is a far more intuitive and easy-to-understand ‘democratic’ benchmark than concepts such as elections and a pluralistic civil society

For ordinary people, the mortality rate is a far more intuitive and easy-to-understand ‘democratic’ benchmark than concepts such as elections and a pluralistic civil society. It allows people to compare their own democracy with the Western variant, thus reinforcing satisfaction with Chinese democracy. It does so even while, paradoxically, people are being treated undemocratically.

Finally, this strengthening of people's identification with Chinese democracy is increasingly bound up with China’s position in the world, especially its continuous rise as an economic superpower. The stronger China is in the world, the prouder and more confident Chinese people are, and the more they identify with China’s system and democracy. And that means higher levels of tolerance for that model of democracy.

No change soon

China’s anti-pandemic policy – the so-called dynamic zero-Covid policy – will not change in the short term (at least in 2022). If anything, the government will continue to strengthen it. Conspiracy theories have propounded the notion that the Chinese government is using the pandemic to enhance its ‘overwhelming control’ over civil society.

There may be an element of truth in this. However, we should remember that regimes cannot sustain authoritarianism on the basis of top-down pressure and control alone. They also need bottom-up popular support. If one understands this basic political logic in China, it helps explain the regime’s management of the pandemic. It also goes some way to explaining China’s authoritarian resilience, something Western liberals underestimate at their peril.

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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