Hong Kong can learn a lot from watching how mainland China’s central and local authorities interact

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Hong Kong can learn a lot from watching how mainland China’s central and local authorities interact

Two recently published books shed light on the relations between central and local authorities in mainland China, and provide valuable lessons for Hong Kong.

People wearing face masks in Central. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

In one, we see that local politicians in Wuhan failed to learn the lessons of SARS, repeating mistakes during the outbreak of Covid-19 that had disastrous consequences for the country and the world. They operated in a system designed centrally that prioritised politics and stability above all else.

In the other, we see that local politicians not only accepted instructions and advice from central authorities, but also actively, persistently, and effectively represented local interests to central authorities. Both cases, one negative and the other positive, offer something for us to learn from.

Yang Dali’s new book, Wuhan: How the Covid-19 Outbreak Spiraled Out of Control, published by Oxford University Press, shows the shocking consequences of prioritising politics and stability over science when Covid-19 emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, with a population of 11 million.

A worker wears a protective suit as he disinfects a room in the Wuhan No.7 hospital in Wuhan, in China's central Hubei province on March 19, 2020. Photo: AFP/China Out.
A worker wears a protective suit as he disinfects a room in the Wuhan No.7 hospital in Wuhan, in China’s central Hubei province on March 19, 2020. Photo: AFP/China Out. Credit: AFP

Yang’s day-by-day account covering the period from December 8, 2019 to the end of the Wuhan lockdown on April 8, 2020, shows how the Chinese Communist Party’s culture of “telling good stories” smothered attempts by clinicians in hospitals and labs to report the dire situation on the ground. As a result, city and provincial leaders, wrapped in a political cocoon, repeatedly lied to central authorities and the public.

According to Yang, local authorities designed elaborate strategies to suppress information about the infectiousness of the disease and clear evidence of human-to-human transmission, allowing the virus to spread throughout the community and beyond. The police, a key part of the stability-maintaining apparatus, vigorously suppressed the many whistleblowers in Wuhan who tried to break through the local party’s wall of silence, Li Wenliang among them.

Li Wenliang
Dr. Li Wenliang.

Local officials, ever vigilant, aggressively censored the national online disease reporting system that would have alerted officials outside of Wuhan and Hubei province, and in Beijing. Local authorities repeatedly concealed from visiting investigation teams the fact that scores of medical personnel in Wuhan hospitals were sick with what came to be called Covid-19.

As Yang points out, central authorities admonished the visiting investigation teams to defer to local authorities “under the[centrally-designed] principal of territorial management, the locals are in charge, and you experts are there to provide assistance.”

As we know, the wall of silence eventually crumbled. The World Health Organization (WHO) first found out about a possible outbreak of a “viral pneumonia of uncertain etiology” from social media. In other words, similar to the SARS outbreak in 2003, China did not initiate reporting to the WHO in accordance with the International Health Regulations.

National and Hong Kong flags decorate Tsim Sha Tsui, in Hong Kong, on October 1, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.
National and Hong Kong flags decorate Tsim Sha Tsui, in Hong Kong, on October 1, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

From Ma Xiao’s book, Localized Bargaining: The Political Economy of China’s High-Speed Railway Program, published by the Oxford University Press in 2022, we see central-local relations in an entirely different light.

Ma traces in great detail how local officials in Jiangsu’s Yancheng city, population 8 million, lobbied and won the extension of high-speed rail to their city, “tirelessly travelling to relevant departments in Beijing and the provincial capital to make the case for the city.”

These efforts involved both the mayor and the party secretary who mobilised the community. They visited the National Development and Reform Commission and the Ministry of Railways/China Railway Corporation “numerous times.” The lobbying spanned over a decade.

Local officials leveraged their positions in the party and state hierarchies. They used local social elites to mobilise “spontaneous expressions of demand for policy benefits by grassroots constituents (e.g., protests) to put pressure on their superiors and extract policy concessions.”

After doubts, delays, and false starts, they succeeded. Yancheng Station opened on December 16, 2019.

Yancheng Station, in China's Jiangsu province. File photo: Wikicommons.
Yancheng Station, in China’s Jiangsu province. File photo: Wikicommons.

Ma shows us what is expected of local officials in mainland China. Hong Kong, by contrast, apparently resisted a high-speed railway station, and only after much discussion, protests, and court cases was a deal finally done.

My point is not about high-speed rail, but about the representation of Hong Kong in the places that matter. Most crucially, these include party committees such as the Central Hong Kong and Macau Work Leading Small Group and Central Committee. The Hong Kong government has no representation on either of these central bodies and yet they make policy on and for Hong Kong.

In the high-speed rail case, local officials lobbied provincial party and government agencies and State Council offices and a ministry turned state-owned enterprise.

The two books taken together reveal much about central-local relations in which Hong Kong is embedded. In both cases a common incentive system for local officials is at play. The system rewards local leaders with promotion for performance. How to define performance depends on the context.

West Kowloon Station national day
Tourists arrive at West Kowloon Station by high-speed rail on National Day, October, 1, 2023. Photo: Hans Tse/HKFP.

In the Wuhan case, the centrally imposed incentive system led authorities to value politics and stability over science. Local officials suppressed, concealed, and lied to central authorities and the public, with disastrous consequences. Yang labels their behaviour a kind of bureaucratic pathology. We all paid for this. True, central authorities held local Hubei and Wuhan leaders to account, and heads rolled.

The same incentive system, this time prioritising economic development, motivated local officials in Yancheng to press central authorities for benefits and they were brilliantly successful.

What can we in Hong Kong learn from these cases? First, unlike authorities in Wuhan, in the past we have valued learning from previous experience. Yang’s account indirectly highlights the autonomy of Hong Kong, under One Country, Two Systems. Our scientific community had the autonomy to investigate and report publicly its findings on sensitive issues such as novel infectious diseases. Our system also has highly valued transparency and sharing information.

Our system, at least previously, was focused on learning lessons from past mistakes. Thus, after SARS, authorities in the government and the Legislative Council convened panels to investigate what went wrong and how to improve our system of infectious disease management and control. We learned a lot from this and it made us better prepared as a community for the outbreak of Covid-19.

Covid-19 vaccination for children, Ingrid Yeung
The Secretary for the Civil Service Ingrid Yeung visited the Hong Kong Children’s Hospital on August 15, 2022 to inspect the first-day operation of the vaccination centre concurrently providing vaccination services with the Sinovac and BioNTech vaccines. Photo: GovHK.

But throughout the Covid-19 pandemic we also made obvious – and perhaps not so obvious – mistakes that must be investigated formally and publicly. The lack of coordination between government departments, the Hospital Authority and the medical profession left our elderly mostly unvaccinated and resulted in the highest death rate in the world from Covid-19.

Conflicting messaging confused many about the benefits and risks of vaccination. How could isolation and quarantine have been better managed? Did we need to close the borders for so long?

Experts would undoubtedly see more, and their investigations could help us better prepare for the next pandemic. These were emergency management decisions, made under pressure. The government now claims to be interested in emergency management. I urge the authorities to reconsider their decision not to investigate how they managed Covid-19. This assumes that Hong Kong has the autonomy to conduct such an investigation. Do we?

Second, we should leverage Hong Kong’s autonomy to lobby Beijing for benefits, Yancheng-style. Our relative autonomy permits us to have a relatively independent legal and judicial system, well-developed financial services, connectivity to the rest of the world, and so forth.

Representation of Hong Kong requires persistent and targeted lobbying to be effective. Such lobbying could win Hong Kong a more central role in the Greater Bay Area, improved logistics and regional airport arrangements, and an enhanced role in the provision of financial services. Ma’s case study also shows the importance of mobilising the community even to protest, something that our leaders today are perhaps loath even to contemplate. This is the hardscrabble reality of politics in China that we need to learn. 

Finally, we need to understand that, from the perspective of the central authorities, prioritising politics and stability is not wrong. This is reflected in the fact that officials have quietly re-employed the party secretaries of Hubei and Wuhan, who were dismissed in February 2020. Priorities often conflict. Which to pursue is a matter of judgement.


Type of Story: Opinion

Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the interpretation of facts and data.

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