Covid-19 reveals how China’s internal politics now affect the whole world.

The official Chinese response to the covid-19 outbreak that began in Wuhan and has now spread across the globe is an almost perfect metaphor for China in 2020. An outbreak that began with local malfeasance in Hubei has become a worldwide crisis.

Like the economy, China’s domestic political challenges have now become globalized. Here’s what this outbreak tells us about the politics and perils of Chinese domestic governance.

Local fragmentation can have a far wider impact

The epidemic shows how the most micro-level domestic fragmentation across functional and regional dimensions of the Chinese political system can affect people all over the world. In Wuhan, an unregulated local market, maximizing profit by dealing in exotic animals and cutting corners on health regulations, produced a novel coronavirus.

Local officials, probably worried about their chances for promotion up the party ladder, quashed the news at a critical early stage and forced whistleblowers to retract and engage in Maoist self-criticism. These same local authorities did not cancel a gathering sponsored by the Baibuting neighbourhood in which 40,000 families gathered to celebrate the Year of the Rat and failed to act until after scores of migrant workers left Wuhan to return to home for Chinese Lunar New Year festivities. And the relatively low ranking of the medical bureaucracies in China’s administrative pecking order ensured that crucial decision-making at the initial stages of the crisis were lost in the mix.

Chinese authorities have been quick to focus blame on these local leaders. The mayor of Wuhan, in turn, pushed back, arguing that he didn’t receive authorization from Beijing to spread “sensitive information.” Even after local officials informed Beijing about the problem, Chinese state-controlled media focused the world’s attention by breathlessly reporting on the creation of entire hospitals overnight and on China’s all-of-government approach to containing the outbreak.

Beijing has sought to advance a narrative about China’s heroic and successful attempts to contain this lethal epidemic, echoing past political movements extolling model workers and revolutionary heroes. While some elements of this narrative may be true, they do not inspire confidence that any preventive measures for future outbreaks will be any more effective than what is already in place.

All the world’s a stage

For decades, students of domestic Chinese politics have analyzed the disconnect between continuous innovation in China’s economic reforms and the mixed success of its moribund political institutions to keep up, let alone manage these changes. But Chinese domestic politics no longer stops at water’s edge; it has thrust itself onto the international stage. Beijing cannot rein in three dozen provincial-level governing units, more than 2,000 county-level governments, 46,000 townships, and up to a million villages and hamlets, all with preferences that to some degree diverge from national policy as well as the means to pursue them.

This failure is not simply a headache for Beijing bureaucrats. It has become an international problem, stretching all the way into nursing homes in suburban Seattle and beyond.

In the past, it was possible — if less than ideal — to separate this rough-and-tumble world of Chinese domestic politics from China’s international behaviour. Now, referring to a singular “China” is not only meaningless, but it also blinds observers to potential dangers arising from the pathologies of fragmented governance. This is what gave birth to the coronavirus — and is an important example of Chinese behaviour that directly impacts the global order.

The local politics of Chinese foreign policy

Revising our perspective to include local Chinese politics in our global outlook allows us to far better understand even tectonic-level international developments. For example, not long ago, there was a significant amount of hand-wringing in the West about China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — that it was a way for Beijing to assert its global preeminence economically and politically.

Stories ranged from China’s flexing of its military muscle in establishing its military presence in vulnerable countries, engaging in debt diplomacy and in supplanting international lending institutions by offering unconditional foreign aid. What wasnotbeing discussed were the ways in which Chinese companies acting on behalf of, or in concert with, local governments were spearheading actual BRI projects and — out of Beijing’s direct control — were undermining the goals of BRI by pursuing risky, short-term gains, to the benefit of subnational governments and state-owned enterprises operating in these BRI-recipient countries.

This is not a new phenomenon, but one that dates to at least the 1970s. For example, Chinese domestic bureaucratic fragmentation undermined Beijing’s ability to provide foreign aid to its sole client state, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, as I found in my book, “Brothers in Arms: Chinese Aid to the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979.”

Nor is it uniquely Chinese. When discussing the role of the U.S. trade representative (USTR) with Chinese foreign policy elites, a frequent question is why the USTR throws the larger Sino-U.S. bilateral relationship under the bus to pursue the interests of trade-dependent U.S. companies. My response is that the USTR acts that way because it is institutionally mandated to do so, to “put Congress inside the Cabinet” and place parochial U.S. concerns onto the forefront of foreign policy, much to chagrin of the State Department and other U.S. foreign policymaking bodies, and not just Beijing.

In a sense, what we are seeing with China is a similar, but far less manageable, magnification of its domestic institutional layout — with a multiplicity of competing and contradictory interests, strategies and power dynamics — playing out not simply in China’s remote provinces, but directly affecting the lives of people all over the globe. For better or worse, this is our world now.

Andrew Mertha (@MerthaAndrew) is the George and Sadie Hyman Professor of China Studies and Director of the China Program at the Johns Hopkins Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.

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