Coronavirus Crisis Exposes Fundamental Tension in Governing China, Says Stanford Sociologist and China Expert Xueguang Zhou


A security guard sits outside a closed market in Wuhan, China.
A security guard sits outside the closed Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, which has been linked to cases of Coronavirus, on January 17, 2020 in Wuhan, Hubei province, China.
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Organizational sociology may not be the first academic field people tend to look to for an explanation of the origins of a public health crisis such as the spreading Wuhan coronavirus, but from the perspective of Stanford sociologist and APARC faculty member , considering the failures that caused the Chernobyl disaster from the perspective of organizational sociology. And those are all information failures. There are many parallels to what has now happened in Wuhan. Since the virus outbreak, this post of mine has been shared many times in China, in social media and various other channels.

Q: What are the implications of this fundamental tension between the centralization of authority and effective governance for China’s future?

This tension creates cycles of centralization and decentralization over time. Decentralization gives rise to diverse interests and propels economic developments in different parts of the country. Indeed, China’s decades of economic rise and reforms were marked by tremendous decentralization. It’s what made China so successful. But decentralization poses a threat to the central authority, so it reverts back to power consolidation, such as we have observed over the last several years under the new leadership.

Then again, the more resources and decision rights are centralized upward, the lower is the effectiveness of governance at local levels. This is manifested in the form of lack of initiative by local governments, which, in turn, creates burden on the central government. China’s economic slowdown has already been putting tremendous pressure on the central government and now, with the scramble to contain the spread of the coronavirus, China’s economy is virtually grinding to a halt. Economic stagnation is almost inevitable, the questions are how severe it will be and how long it will take to recover from it.

I therefore believe it is only a matter of time until China goes through yet another phase of decentralization, but that will most likely be merely another part of a perpetual cycle. The cycle will continue unless China’s challenges are translated into political action and fundamental changes are made to the institutional foundations of governance. Such changes, however, will involve the Chinese bureaucracy and official ideology and are unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future.

Q: What are some of the findings from you鸿运彩票下载网址r research into the Chinese bureaucracy?

Over the last decade, I have been conducting fieldwork and studying the inner workings of the Chinese bureaucracy in action: observing how local officials behave in problem solving, crises management, policy implementation, and interact with both higher authorities and lower-ranking bureaucrats. I have developed theoretical models and arguments about how the Chinese state has been organized and how it operates both at the local levels (bottom-up perspective) and central level (top-down perspective).

As part of that project, I have been studying patterns of career mobility among bureaucrats in the Jiangsu Province, which has the second largest economy in China, just behind Shanghai. I now have a dataset encompassing half a million records on more than 40,000 officials, detailing their career flows from 1990 to 2013. This project sheds light on many important issues related to the Chinese bureaucracy and governance in China. For example, the dual authority between the party and government lines is a defining feature of the party-state in China. We can examine the key characteristics of this phenomenon through the lens of personnel management, that is, how officials are moving through different positions between the party and government. We have a paper forthcoming on this topic.

Another line of research in this project is what I call “stratified spatial mobility,” meaning a pattern whereby just a handful of officials are able to move beyond the administrative jurisdiction along the bureaucratic ladder into the immediate next higher-level administrative jurisdiction, whereas most officials stay within their own jurisdiction for life. It’s polarized mobility, in stark contrast between spatial mobility and local mobility. That’s why in each locality there are dense social networks and strong boundaries. This type of stratified mobility in the Chinese bureaucracy has huge consequences for understanding how China is governed. For example, local networks fiercely protect each other and have strong ties with those officials at an immediate authority, resulting in collusion among local governments when they respond to crises or interact with higher authorities. The failure to keep the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak from becoming an epidemic is a case in point. So we opened this conversation with the coronavirus and end it with the same topic.