China’s not-so-responsive authoritarianism

December 19, 2022

China’s not-so-responsive authoritarianism

Rafael Rienks
December 19, 2022

China’s not-so-responsive authoritarianism

What the Zero-Covid strategy reveals about Chinese power dynamics
Rafael Rienks
December 19, 2022
China’s not-so-responsive authoritarianism
Rafael Rienks
Maya Turolla
December 19, 2022
Design by asnan_ad ©Shutterstock

China, post-Mao, has embraced a system of ‘responsive authoritarianism’. In this system, credited with China’s regime durability, the government seeks citizens’ feedback and tolerates modest calls for change. This allows the government to make improvements to its policies and thus improve its legitimacy. This is done proactively so that it can respond to weak signals before any opposition becomes too widespread. Yet, following the 20th party congress, many of these responsive mechanisms have lost strength and power has become more centralized around President Xi, who has been portrayed as the sole person who can lead China to glory.

From this perspective, China’s zero-covid strategy posed a significant problem. It was Xi’s signature policy and has been inextricably linked to him. Protests against the strategy could thus only be interpreted as protests against Xi himself and abandoning the strategy because of the protests would mean a major loss of face for Xi.

‘Luckily’, Omicron’s milder symptoms offer an alternative narrative and allow the State to lift the most severe restrictions, without having to acknowledge any mistakes on the side of Xi or the wider government. It will be interesting to see whether this experience will lead to a restoration of the mechanisms of responsive authoritarianism, in order to avoid similar stalemates in the future.

Burning questions
  • In case infection rates spike in China and hospitals are overflooded, what would this mean for the legitimacy of the Chinese government?
  • Can the notion of responsiveness also become part of Xi’s image as a strong leader?
  • Could the current cabinet’s failure to adapt its policies make way for one of the opposing factions to gain influence within the party?
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