How Governance Shapes Emergency Management: China’s Mixed Records in Responding to COVID-19

Bo Wen, Shui-Yan Tang, Lei Tao


A nation’s governing system shapes its capacity for emergency preparedness and management. Designed to maintain the central government’s absolute authority, China’s governing system limits local governments’ initiative and capacity in responding to mass emergencies. By examining China’s fight against COVID-19, this essay dynamically demonstrates how the country’s governing regime constrains local officials’ initial response to the virus but facilitated large-scale mobilization once the crisis was recognized by the central leadership. Three essential factors for an adaptive emergency management system are identified: 1) raising the central government’s ability to recognize mass emergencies, 2) changing political incentives of local cadres, and 3) creating a flexible and efficient ad-hoc resource allocation mechanism. This study provides insights on how to enhance the resilience of a mass emergency management system within the constraints of existing governing institutions.


China; governance; intergovernmental relations; adaptability; resilience; mass emergency management; COVID-19 Pandemic

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