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Thursday, February 20, 2020
Rethinking China's Central-Local Relations Under Covid-19 Epidemic
He Jun

In the battle against the new coronavirus (Covid-19) epidemic, China’s central-local government relations once again are being tested in this real major public health events. At present, the leading role in the fight against the epidemic has risen from local affairs in Hubei Province to central affairs under the command and deployment of the central government. The central government not only sent a guding team to Hubei, but also replaced two local leaders (secretary of the Hubei Provincial Party Committee and the secretary of the Wuhan Municipal Party Committee) because of their poor response to the outbreak. This is quite similar to the removal of the Minister of Health and the Mayor of Beijing during the SARS epidemic. The two major outbreaks in 17 years apart began to show a pattern: whenever major public health and security incidents occur, the main officials in the place of the incident may lose their jobs due to poor response.

This time the response to the Covid-19 epidemic reflects what kind of central-local relations ?

From this epidemic situation, we can see that in the face of major public events with systemic effects, the central government will eventually have to step in. Observing the public information, it can be seen that the central government may have hoped that Hubei Province could handle the matter initially. One piece of evidence is that, until January 20, the information on the novel coronavirus situation was issued by the Wuhan Municipal Health and Health Commission and it was not released by the National Health and Medical Commission until January 21. The new national epidemic joint prevention and control mechanism across 32 departments was not established until January 21. Because the situation deteriorated quickly and was beyond the control of Hubei’s local government, the central government then took over. Since then, the coordination of medical personnel, medical supplies and the mobilization of the army to assist Hubei nationwide have all been coordinated by the central government.

However, it is tempting to think that in China with a population of 1.4 billion, if every major public event requires the central government to start the nationwide system to handle it, this would not be a sustainable mechanism and it may also create some new problems:

(1) The central government may often be in a state of emergency to solve the issues, which will affect more national-level governance work (of course, the central government has the responsibility for problem-solving).

(2) The cost of resolving public situations can be prohibitively high. Because dealing with major public events requires the mobilization of a large quantity of resources, affecting the economy and the market, the issue of "cost / benefit" must be considered.

(3) The role of local governments in national governance cannot be brought into play and it is difficult to improve governance capabilities. This will weaken and degrade the government capabilities.

Observing the treatment and response to this epidemic, it must admitted that although China has achieved the world's second biggest GDP, and many mega-cities of extraordinary scale have been quickly established in various places of the country, there are still many problems in the ability of local governments to respond and deal with when facing complex situations. In particular, there are still many shortcomings in accurately identifying the nature of the crisis and looking ahead to determine potential risks. The result is that small matters often become huge issues, and minor illnesses become major epidemics. This is followed by the entire country required to handle such major public situations with extremely high socioeconomic costs. While China can eventually overcome such difficulties, it is also important to consider that in modern social governance, there be better solutions.

Some might believe that "the frequent occurrence of disasters are able to rejuvenate a country", yet this is not necessarily the case. In a modern society where knowledge, technology, and wealth are accumulating rapidly, the governance capacity and mechanism need to reach a higher level. Chinese President Xi Jinping himself has stated that the fight against the epidemic was "a major test of the national governance system and capacity". This can be understood as after experiencing such major situation, the Chinese government system must keep in mind the high cost paid to battle against Covid-19. Experiences and lessons need to be solidified into government capabilities and transformed into more scientific ideas, systems, mechanisms, policies, reforms and governing memories. The national governance system and capacity not only reflect the ability to govern, but also are important part of the political structure of modern society.

From the perspective of improving governance capabilities, what adjustments and changes will be required for future central and local governments of China?

Viewing this from the perspective of an independent think-tank, researchers from ANBOUND believe that in the future, under the basic structure of centralized management with the central government as the core, China's central-local relations will not change. However, to achieve better state governance, some adjustments to future central-local relations will be needed. It is necessary to establish a certain incentive mechanism, while maintaining the political authority of the central government. In addition, it is also crucial to generate more local enthusiasm. In fact, widely mobilizing local enthusiasm is an important experience in the success of China's reform and opening-up. Now it is necessary to carry forward the successful experience in the new era.

Adjusting the central-local relations is a complex and sensitive systematic project, which can be seen as a structural adjustment of the national governance system. The work involved is very complicated, touching upon a large number of rights distribution, interest transfer and the establishment and adjustment of restraint mechanisms. If it is to become a policy, many specialized agencies are required to carry out policy design. As think-tank researchers, we only do some explorations on basic ideas. According to ANBOUND’s researchers, the adjustment of central-local relations involves in what we call "one release and one closure".

The so-called "one release" refers to the need for the central government to moderately release power to the local area so that local rights and responsibilities match the affairs undertook by the local government. The central and local governments can delineate some areas where local powers are relatively large, increasing the rights of local governments and establish central and local consultation mechanisms. After decentralization, local governments can be asked to undertake more local affairs. The matching of powers and responsibilities here is not only a requirement of financial system reform, but also involves more public affairs, decision-making power and management power in the field of social management. Moderate decentralization is the core foundation for building local-oriented incentive mechanisms. Moderate decentralization can effectively solve the problem of local government dare not to undertake responsibility and lazy local government. The power has been given to the local government and the local government must take responsibility. It should be pointed out that the premise of moderate decentralization is that the central government maintains political authority and control over major issues, but this is with the premise that such measure would not cause issue in China.

The so-called "one close" refers to the need for the central government to restrict local governments by establishing standards, norms, and mechanisms in some professional fields in addition to political authority, such as official and supervision mechanisms. In these professional fields, many professional aspects can be established, including professional institutions, strength, norms and requirements. For example, in response to major public health situations, there are many professional norms and constraints (i.e. information reporting, information disclosure and transparency, professional force coordination, emergency mechanisms, social mobilization mechanisms, etc.). In these specialized areas, the central government can establish national institutions to lead and direct local professional work.

Final analysis conclusion:

For a large country like China that has a large population with significant diversity, it is impossible for the central government to manage everything in the future state governance. A way to alleviate this issue is to moderately decentralize and provide funding for local governments in appropriate areas and adopt professional norms and standards to strengthen the constraints on local governance. In this way, in addition to political standing and administrative requirements, this can create a more diversified central-local governance mechanism and model.

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