What Keeps China’s Zero-COVID Policy Going

China is facing its worst COVID-19 outbreak since the initial outbreak in Wuhan in early 2020, as daily reported cases have jumped to over 3,500. While this number is minuscule compared to the worldwide Omicron outbreak, the outbreak has led to a strict lockdown in many cities.

Facing the surge of positive cases, the Chinese government has decided to double down on its draconian zero-COVID policy. During a State Council meeting in March, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, the top coordinator of China’s COVID-19 response, declared that China will continue the zero-COVID policy “without hesitation.” Therefore, local governments must treat the policy as “a primary political task” and “a top objective of the country.”

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has mobilized all of society’s forces to enforce the zero-COVID policy. President Xi Jinping repeatedly highlighted the role of “people’s warfare” in combating the pandemic, demonstrating the central role of mobilization in China’s pandemic management. The CCP derives mobilization capability from its Leninist identity and its history. A Leninist party is a political organization that commands hierarchically from top to bottom and penetrates every level of society. Within the CCP, the 4.8 million party cells extend from the central government in Beijing to rural villages. Mobilization played a fundamental role in the CCP’s victory in the Chinese Civil War. During the Yan’an era, Mao Zedong developed the Mass Line and the People’s War to mobilize the population for military struggles. After the CCP’s victory in 1949, Mao repeatedly employed mobilization during the Land Reform and Socialist Transformation, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution.

Despite this ideological heritage, mobilization under Xi is very different from mobilization under Mao in terms of policy implementation. A Maoist mobilization required adopting a particular model that was uniformly applied throughout the entire country. For example, Mao’s endorsement of large People’s Communes led to the uniform adoption of the People’s Commune model in rural areas during the Great Leap Forward. His praise of backyard furnaces led to universal participation in backyard steelmaking throughout China. In contrast, mobilization under Xi does not require uniformity throughout China; it is task-driven.

Diplomat Brief Weekly Newsletter N Get briefed on the story of the week, and developing stories to watch across the Asia-Pacific. Get the Newsletter

Scholars such as Kevin J. O’Brien describe the Chinese state as responsibility-driven, meaning local officials operate under what is known as the cadre responsibility system. The cadre responsibility system evaluates the performance of local cadres based on their fulfillment of assigned policy goals. During mobilization, the task from the top leadership becomes the priority, outweighing all policy goals in the cadre responsibility system. Under the current zero-COVID policy, the task of preventing a COVID-19 outbreak outweighs the imperative of economic growth, usually the most critical policy goal in the cadre responsible system.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

This task-driven system reflects the central government’s inability to control every local government closely. Beijing cannot monitor all local policy implementation processes. Thus, the central government uses task-driven mobilization to ensure that all local governments achieve a uniform result. The outcome-based nature of the task-driven mobilization creates incentives for policy innovation based on local conditions.

China’s zero-COVID policy demonstrates that local cadres have some freedom in task completion. Local governments can use any method as long as they can prevent an outbreak. Therefore, the zero-COVID policy as implemented reflects an urban-rural divide. All localities implemented the zero-COVID policy to the extreme; however, officials in urban and rural areas chose different implementation methods. Large cities and municipalities implemented strict lockdown during COVID-19 outbreak. Under such a lockdown, numerous medical workers, social workers, and party cadres patrol streets, conduct mass COVID-19 testing campaigns, and distribute food and other necessities to residents.

In comparison, small and remote villages, communities, and townships do not use lockdowns. Instead, they track down “high-risk populations” who might cause an outbreak in their locality. According to one interviewee who lives in a small village, people live a relatively normal life even during the height of the pandemic. Instead of receiving daily necessities through the government distribution system like city residents, people buy staple goods from markets, which stay open during the pandemic. Only those who return to the village from elsewhere suffer rigorous home quarantines and repeated home visits from local cadres. Another cadre from a small town said that the government uses the health code system to prevent people from coming into the town. Within the town, people can live like normal.

There are two reasons behind this difference in implementation. On the one hand, villages are rather secluded. Thus, local cadres are confident that they could prevent an outbreak by strictly controlling the inflow of population. On the other hand, small communities usually don’t have the necessary human and financial resources to facilitate a total lockdown.

The zero-COVID policy and the mass lockdowns have taken a great toll on the life of regular Chinese citizens. Estimates show that more than 4.5 million small businesses closed in 2020, and the number of closed small businesses was likely higher in 2021. The human costs of the zero-COVID policy are also likely to be greater. China’s mortality rate jumped to 7.18 deaths per 1,000 inhabitants in 2021, the highest level since 2000. This has led to about 160,000 surplus deaths compared to 2020. The high mortality rate and the surplus deaths are probably related to the secondary costs of lockdowns, such as patients with chronic conditions who cannot visit hospitals regularly and acute patients who cannot receive timely treatments. For example, a hospital in Xi’an refused to treat a man with acute angina due to lockdown instructions. The lack of care led to the man’s death.

As a mobilization movement, the zero-COVID policy incentivizes officials to double down on extreme measures without regard for the costs. The overwhelming focus on the target creates incentives for local governments to take extreme measures. During mobilization, the evaluation of local cadre performance is reduced to just one metric; their evaluation and career prospects are solely based on completing the task of containing COVID-19. This singular evaluation system incentivizes local officials to sacrifice all other duties to ensure success in pandemic management, because other costs are not measured and do not matter to the cadre’s evaluation. In Jilin province, where the Omicron variant hit the hardest, 16 government officials were punished for not implementing COVID-19 containment effectively. Thus, the mobilization incentivizes cadres to focus solely on enforcing the zero-COVID policy while ignoring other economic and human costs.

Local officials also use extreme measures to portray themselves as hardworking and attract the attention of their superiors. The hardworking image demonstrates that they are fervent supporters of the party line. This helps them satisfy evaluators and gain promotions. In addition, if they fail to meet the target by any chance, they can use extreme measures to shift the blame away. As one Chinese idiom says, “one might not have any achievement, but one worked hard (没有功劳,也有苦劳).” By demonstrating that they have already done everything possible, including extreme measures, at least local cadres can signal to upper-level evaluators that they have worked hard for the target and dutifully followed instructions. The implication is that some unfortunate and unforeseen situations beyond their control doomed the project. In the case of containing COVID-19, local officials can blame irresponsible individuals who hide their symptoms and travel history and shield themselves from punishment.

Yu Keping, a leading CCP theorist, argues that good governance must include responsiveness to citizens’ demands. Under this definition, the target-focus mobilization inevitably leads to poor governance. The local government sacrifices all other duties since higher-level officials only evaluate the given task – in this case, pandemic management. During the pandemic, local cadres overwhelmingly focus on pandemic containment and ignore other legitimate demands from citizens. Those who respond to these demands at the cost of pandemic containment are punished. In Zhoukou, a city in Henan province, a doctor was charged for treating a fever patient while working at a hospital without a fever clinic.

In addition, local governments tend to allocate all resources and personnel to pandemic control. One interviewee from a township government said that all local government workers, regardless of their original duties and offices, worked on COVID-19 containment. The over-focus on pandemic containment inevitably diminishes attention to other issues and ignores citizens’ non-pandemic-related demands.

The COVID-19 lockdowns show that the CCP’s strategy of mobilization has evolved with time and still plays a vital role in contemporary Chinese politics. Mobilization under Xi is task-driven. It overcomes the policy implementation problem of different localities and incentivizes policy innovation based on local conditions. China’s mobilization effort has effectively contained the spread of the virus and reduced the loss of human lives due to COVID-19. However, the secondary costs illustrate the weakness of mobilization. Mobilization tends to create governance problems because the unitary cadre evaluation system during mobilization leads toward extreme implementation.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The Chinese government has argued that China’s mobilization response to COVID-19 demonstrates the government’s superior governance capability. However, the Chinese government is facing a governance dilemma resulting from extreme policy implementation that it has yet to overcome.