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The American and Chinese Intergovernmental Relations in the Context of COVID-19

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Yunsoo Lee
November 28, 2020

The recent COVID-19 pandemic started in 2019 as a medical security crisis, which then turned into a crisis of greater governance systems. In particular, COVID-19 is becoming one of the greatest challenges for intergovernmental relations around many countries. To effectively combat the virus, it is necessary for central and local governments to build a collaborative relationship. In practice, however, the cacophony among national and sub-national governments captivated the attention of scholars, practitioners and citizens. Full repercussions of COVID-19 on intergovernmental relations are unbeknownst to anyone yet. Thus, it is worth mentioning how differential structures of government can make a difference in the response toward the catastrophe of COVID-19. Both China and the United States were badly surprised when the severity of COVID-19 jumped to extremely acute levels, threatening overall governance systems. This commentary juxtaposes Chinese intergovernmental relations with that of the United States in seeing how intergovernmental relations affected government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The People’s Republic of China

The structure of Chinese intergovernmental relations partially contributed to a failure in preventing COVID-19. Although local hospitals collected information regarding the new virus, they did not immediately report up the administrative ladder to municipal or provincial governments. This was primarily because the frontline public officers are to blame when they report negative performance. In addition, public officials at Hubei province did not properly hone in on the early stages either, hoping that the new virus somehow would go away. Provincial governments did not want to make a fuss in order to avoid punishment from the central government. In the meantime, precious golden hours had gone. Quick responses are of the utmost importance in controlling the contagious diseases. As a result, China has been berated internationally for not acting fast enough to respond to this virus.

At the same time, the centralized structure of Chinese intergovernmental relations helped to respond to the transmissible virus after the initial failure. The central government took draconian measures. It did lockdown Wuhan city, the epicenter of COVID-19. It did shutdown ordinary activities not only in Hubei province but also in Heilongjiang province, which is 1,000 miles away from Hubei province because COVID-19 is communicable. The decisionmaking on imposing a lockdown is politically sensitive because it is unpopular. However, in China, the communist party has taken precedence in decisionmaking and has taken full charge. Local governments’ complaints were muted by Beijing because the central government arm-twisted local governments. This severe lockdown and quarantine measures led to the dramatic reduction of the number of infected people.

The United States of America

A threat like COVID-19 is not the crisis that a single state can handle alone well. The federal government should be involved in fending off the crisis. The federal government of the United States of America provided some emergency assistance and health care response for its own people affected by COVID-19. Nonetheless, it took a relatively back-seat role in managing crisis situations because the Trump administration worried that the economy would plunge into a recession. Numerous media outlets criticized this lackluster response because the risks from a late response are grave.

On the contrary, governmental fragmentation is advantageous when a central government mismanages the situation. The United States federal government had some time to prepare and prevent COVID-19, but Washington downplayed the seriousness of the virus and dragged its feet. In the meanwhile, governors could issue an executive order or initiate policies to minimize the fallouts. For instance, the Governor of Maryland purchased test kits from South Korea for the safety of its populace. Additionally, governors have an authority to make the call on what to do for their citizens by taking into account in their unique situations. To be sure, the situation of Wyoming is different than that of Rhode Island. State governments took innovate measures to deal with problems engendered by the pandemic. This counterbalanced and substituted what the federal government failed and missed.

Either/Or: A Fragment of Governing

In order not to make 2020 as an annus horribilis, both national and sub-national governments of the two countries have been attempting to halt the COVID-19 spread going forward. Intergovernmental relations elicited the concern of being accused of contributing substantially to the catastrophe. Responding to COVID-19 exceeded the capability or routine responsibility of a single local government. However, the question remains as to whether centralizing or decentralizing is appropriate for fighting against COVID-19. If a central government gave the wrong order, failures would spill over across the whole sovereign territory.

I encapsulate my perspective by applying Søren Kierkegaard’s quote to the context of COVID-19. A country can either be centralized or decentralized. My idea is this: centralized or decentralized- citizens will regret both when government does not work for the interest of the people. The ultimate importance lies in how the people respond.


Author: Yunsoo Lee is an assistant professor at School of Political Science and Public Administration, Shandong University. He holds a PhD in public administration and a master degree in public policy. His main research interests are public management, citizen trust in government, and airport.

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