Asia China's "top-down" structure shows its weakness amidst the Wuhan virus outbreak

China’s “top-down” structure shows its weakness amidst the Wuhan virus outbreak

It is proving not so effective at handling difficult, intricate situations at micro levels

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The opinions expressed in this commentary can be attributed to independent economist Andy Xie, who wrote the original piece for the South China Morning Post

China’s attention has been turned completely by the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak that is sweeping the nation. In order to mitigate the virus spread and in an unprecedented display of government mobilisation, it has placed Wuhan and at least 15 other cities under quarantine orders, affecting the lives of more than 50 million people.

China’s power lies in its ability to mould its society on such a large scale, with the government at the centre of everything. In the case of the Wuhan coronavirus, the government has presence everywhere, down to the “grassroots party cells” that enforce quarantine policies in each little village or town.

The way China’s political system is structured allows it to focus all of its resources on one thing while other issues are shelved. With the government responding in full force to the spread of the coronavirus, the economy takes a back seat. If China’s lockdown is in effect for a month (an underestimate), the economy would be looking at a loss of around 2 per cent of the gross domestic product. The duration of the virus outbreak dictates how much loss the economy will suffer — the longer the epidemic lasts, the higher the costs.

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Powerful governments like China’s are suited to addressing crises on a national scale, but there is question as to how effective they are at preventing them. The rise of the Wuhan coronavirus, which began in early December last year, and the way China has responded to it, feels oddly familiar to the Sars (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak of 2003, which also originated in the country.

The virus spread rapidly, its numbers of confirmed cases in China rising daily and extending beyond its point of origin in Wuhan. If the city responded by following the World Health Organisation’s guidelines of implementing quarantine policy early on —disseminating information to the public to promote awareness and vigilance, and restricting crowds on the ground — the crisis could have been contained.

But China’s “top-down” structure dictates that everyone in the hierarchy is accountable to someone in a position above them. This strengthens the idea that “the less initiative one takes, the less likely one is to receive blame”.

In terms of the Wuhan coronavirus crisis, a swift response was necessary. If officials on the ground acted quickly — restricting crowds from certain areas or imposing quarantines on persons suspected to have the virus or even those related to infected persons — the outbreak could have been prevented.

But individual officials do not have the authority to act on their own and would need an “okay” from someone above before they could do anything. The official could also be blamed for acting on their own and making a mess of the situation.

Chinese officials responded the way the model dictates them to — reports were filed to immediate superiors and made their way up the ladder to a higher-up with the power to act. Procedure, process and protocol. That is how the structure works.

The China model has proven to be good at tackling big, obvious issues, but it is proving to not be so effective at handling difficult, intricate situations at micro levels. If the government is too strong, personal responsibility wanes, as people sit back on their haunches, complacent in the knowledge that the government will solve everything — people will not be compelled to take personal action.

Controlling a viral outbreak can only be done effectively when everyone is aware and allowed to play their parts. Keeping the country on lockdown is extremely costly and certainly not sustainable.
In the China model, citizens accept the presence of an all-powerful government in exchange for security and comfort.  While that works for a small city-nation, provided that there is little distance between the government and the people, it proves ineffective for such a massive country like China.
Going through all the levels of hierarchy, unable to move or act until given a go-ahead by the person above, makes crisis response extremely slow and inefficient, and does not instill in citizens a personal sense of urgency and responsibility.
The Wuhan coronavirus has revealed the flaw in China’s tightly-controlled, top-down model. Perhaps it is time for an upgrade. /TISG
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