China’s Social Governance: Looking Beyond COVID-19
February 28, 2022
About the author:
Xie Maosong, Senior Fellow of Taihe Institute; Director of Research Center for Chinese Civilization and Roads at China Institute for Innovation and Development Strategy; Senior Research Fellow of National Strategy Institute of Tsinghua University
Epidemics, especially major ones, are often a catalyst to the rise and fall of great powers and civilizations.
When a great power or civilization is in decline, the government of that state is likely to become completely incapacitated when faced with a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. This ineptitude to cope with the emergency will then stimulate the outburst of various internal problems that have been festered and left untended for a long time.
On the contrary, when the national power of a country is on the rise, emergencies such as COVID-19 outbreak then become the touchstone of the government’s capacity, as they will help strengthen the ability of the government to mobilize resources in response to the situation. This will then reinforce the cohesiveness of the society, which further helps the government address the problems generated along the way of the country’s development.
In its fight against COVID-19, China has demonstrated to the world its management capacities and government effectiveness in mobilizing all elements of society, contrasting starkly with the governments and elites from the West, who seemed to have been overly-obsessed with conspiracy theories, casting blame on China for their incompetence to deal with the public health crisis. In China, the government directive, which dictates that all suspected and confirmed patients should be admitted to hospitals and all confirmed patients should be treated, stands in sharp difference with the “herd immunity” mechanism of COVID-19 containment. The former highlights equality, whereas the latter emphasizes the notion of “survival of the fittest,” which is arguably the main thrust of Western civilization. Comparing the two helps us understand the role of the pandemic in the development of different powers and civilizations.
The effectiveness in containing the COVID-19 pandemic in China during the past two years has one fundamental implication for the country’s social governance in the post-pandemic era, namely the acceleration of modernizing China’s social governance capacities. This can be manifested through the following aspects.
The first one is a heightened confidence of the general public in government. The fight against the pandemic is a nationwide undertaking. Therefore, it is necessary to mobilize the participation of people from all walks of life. That is to say, trust and confidence are key. Meanwhile, the mechanism of mobilizing social resources has to go through phases of tests and improvement, which implies that loopholes must be closed in a timely manner so as to ensure the effectiveness of governance. China’s performance thus far has no doubt boosted the Chinese people’s confidence in the government. This will naturally heighten their expectations of the government in the post-pandemic era. Therefore, it is reasonable to predict that the modernization process of China’s social governance system will be enhanced.
“The effectiveness in containing the COVID-19 pandemic in China
during the past two years has one fundamental implication
for the country’s social governance in the post-pandemic era,
namely the acceleration of modernizing China’s social governance capacities.”
More specifically, people’s trust in the government is established on the grounds of high responsiveness. In other words, the government understands the needs of the public and is able to deliver. The principle of receiving all suspected and treating all infected is a good illustration of this. No one was left behind, even for the 100-year-old elderly. During the pandemic, the government offered effective resolutions for ordinary people and small and medium-sized enterprises. In the post-pandemic era, people will keep coming to the government with problems and grievances for possible solutions. And the government should be prepared with higher responsiveness and greater capacities to address them. In addition, elderly care will be a major area of development as the country, with digital technology being widely utilized, adjusts to a new normal. China’s elderly care will develop to serve the majority rather than only the rich.
To contain the spread of a highly contagious virus, digital technology, as seen in the use of contact tracing apps, plays an extremely important role. COVID-19 hit just as China was in the process of transitioning itself from a manufacturing economy to an innovation-driven service economy. In the coming years, China will keep up the momentum and promote the use and advancement of digital technology to facilitate the building of a modern digital society. Indeed, excess capitalization of various digital platforms and the attendant lack of social responsibility may become increasingly prevalent as they gain the lion’s share of the market. Accordingly, these platforms will be subject to strict discipline and supervision, and the ethical values behind algorithms will also be strictly regulated. Moreover, ever since the COVID outbreak, China has been fighting propaganda wars initiated by the West. Over the past two years, China has become better trained in dealing with the impact of fake news and disinformation campaigns. The trend will not get reversed in the future, and China’s social governance in this respect will be improved in due course as well.
Another aspect concerns biosecurity. The pandemic has alerted China to the importance of monitoring biosecurity-related issues. In the post-pandemic era, a systemic mechanism must be established that allows relevant government bodies to swiftly respond and take preventive measures. This, along with food security and medical safety, is an intrinsic aspect of the broad national security concept in social governance and shall not be overlooked.
Equally important is the issue of consumption. This is not something faced by China alone. The pandemic caused disruptions to many industries. It has impacted people financially and psychologically. How to address this should be the first and foremost issue of concern in the post-pandemic era.
The much better records of China in its fight against COVID-19 pandemic illustrate the advantages of the country’s system and governance model in dealing with crises. Yet, undergirding the system is the Chinese civilization. And key to Chinese civilization is the special importance the Chinese people attach to the notion of family. This sense of unity and collectivity, as well as the trust of people in the government, were what made Chinese people highly cooperative when faced with the shelter-in-place order, the quarantine rules, and rounds of COVID-19 tests. Chinese civilization emphasizes the integration of family and nation: a nation’s welfare is premised upon the welfare of its families. Therefore, to enhance the cohesiveness of the society, China’s social governance will focus more on incorporating Chinese traditional wisdom into the modern governance model.
Again, COVID-19 is the touchstone of a country’s capacity because it quickly and outrightly exposed the problems with the existing governance model. These problems then stimulated the internal adjustment of the governance system. Some parts of the system could be adjusted quickly, while some would take time. However, given China’s system, it can be argued that its social governance capacity will experience constant development and improvement.
One important issue to be addressed over the long term is the lack of emergency management capabilities. The Ministry of Emergency Management was established not long before the outbreak of COVID-19. However, generally speaking, the accumulation of experience matters a lot for government bodies to function effectively. It is necessary to enhance the prevailing mechanism, and yet this will be a time-consuming process that requires the build-up of hands-on experiences. Another notable aspect is the shortage of talents and professionals. Emergency management requires systematic training and a solid knowledge base. In response to this, the state has decided to set up emergency management universities in the northern and the southern parts of the country to cultivate talents in this regard to ensure that China is always equipped and prepared to rise up to emergencies.
“Again, COVID-19 is the touchstone of a country’s capacity
because it quickly and outrightly exposed the problems
with the existing governance model.”
Another related issue is the unequal allocation of resources. This is especially prominent in underdeveloped rural areas or even old neighborhoods in urban cities. Thus, city planning has to be more balanced in terms of economic development, and front-line workers should be able to have a first-hand, basic understanding of the local conditions so as to make the most of the resources available at hand.
In addition to this, social governance in the post-pandemic era requires that the government respond to online public opinion in a timely manner. Social governance concerns more than China’s ability to address its domestic issues. To enhance its capacity, China also needs to recognize the impact of public opinion and how the opinion might be used by external forces against China itself. The memories of the Arab Spring and the Jasmine Revolution are still fresh. The accusations made by some Western media and politicians against China in recent years, which were often factually incorrect or sheer fabrication, followed a similar pattern as well. Social problems are complicated. Some of them can be quickly tackled based on the real-time demand of the people, while the ones left from history require more time to address. In dealing with these problems, it is necessary that the government respond to public opinion, but at the same time, it needs to ensure that it does not become overwhelmed by the emotional demands of the netizens.
Given the fact that China is confronted with the challenges of a fast-aging society and the overwhelming burdens on the younger generation in regard to high costs in housing and education, in the post-pandemic era, the government, in its efforts to improve social governance, needs to come up with more practical guidelines and reallocate resources to, on the one hand, take good care of the country’s elderlies, who have worked hard and contributed to the nation-building in the past decades, and, on the other, address the worries and concerns of the younger generation and help create more opportunities for them to pursue their own ways to common prosperity and build a brighter future with greater confidence.
This article is from the February issue of TI Observer (TIO), which is a monthly publication devoted to bringing China and the rest of the world closer together by facilitating mutual understanding and promoting exchanges of views. If you are interested in knowing more about the February issue, please click here:
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