Theme Panel: COVID-19, Crisis Response, & Legitimacy in China

COVID-19, Crisis Response, & Legitimacy in China

Co-sponsored by Division 13: Politics of Communist and Former Communist Countries
Created Panel

(Discussant) Rongbin Han, University of Georgia; (Chair) Daniela Stockmann, Hertie School

Session Description:
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected public perceptions of regime legitimacy? How have state actors reacted to the public health crisis, and how have they framed pandemic response in ways that could bolster regime support? The papers on this panel speak to the theme of “post-pandemic political science” by examining the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on political legitimacy in China as viewed from both the top-down and bottom-up. First, Chan examines variation in the effectiveness of top-down crisis response in China through a comparison of natural disasters (the 2008 Sichuan earthquake) and public health crises (SARs and COVID-19). Next, Huang examines the effects of state propaganda on public opinion in times of crisis, using a survey experiment of the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in China in March 2020. Chen also examines how the CCP has responded to its post-pandemic legitimacy challenges using data from Communist Youth League propaganda and online forums. Finally, Carothers and Freedman expand beyond domestic response to show how the CCP has used the United States’ failures at home and abroad, including the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, to bolster its own legitimacy. In addition to a coherent focus on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on legitimacy in China, this panel brings together scholars that reflect the diversity of the field in terms of their institutional affiliation, rank, gender, and background.


Authoritarian Crisis Response in China
Alexsia Tiffanie Chan, Hamilton College

Why do authoritarian regimes sometimes respond more effectively immediately after a crisis than in the aftermath? After shoddily built schools collapsed during the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, why did local authorities cite earthquake safety as a reason to shut down migrant schools far from high seismic risk regions? This paper differentiates the state’s immediate reaction from longer-term policy responses and compares China’s responses to two types of crises: natural disasters (e.g., the Wenchuan earthquake) and public health crises (e.g., the SARS epidemic and COVID-19 pandemic). State capacity and centralization of power may generate an effective initial top-down response because the central government can quickly mobilize resources at the outset of a crisis. It argues, however, that effectiveness in helping those most directly affected varies depending on competing political priorities at the local level and broader systemic features of public service provision. Data are drawn from previous interviews with frontline service providers in healthcare and education and government officials, policy documents, newspaper articles, and other documentary sources.


The Enhanced Legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party amid the COVID-19 Pandemic
Rou-lan Chen, National Sun Yat-sen University

The COVID-19 pandemic foresees two major emerging challenges to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP): governance capacity and economic downturn. During this initial period, it posed suspicion of communist efforts to effectively enhance case ascertainment and the pandemic control. Furthermore, coronavirus intensifies China’s recessionary pressures as the global trend of de-Sinicization rises. However, the CCP has instead tightened its grip on power amid coronavirus outbreaks. This project aims at investigating in which way the Beijing authorities diverted public sentiments against the CCP. This study will conduct the content analysis on the propaganda of the Communist Youth League circulated on the China Youth Network to examine how authoritarian populism has gone hand in hand with an increase of the trust in Chinese government. Furthermore, this project will use text mining to explore the Baidu Tieba forum and see how the CCP manipulated xenophobic nationalism to consolidate the party rule.

America the Failure: Examining a Rising Narrative in Chinese State Propaganda
Christopher Carothers, University of Pennsylvania; Joshua Brent Freedman, Harvard University

Authoritarian regimes often use anti-American propaganda to rally public support for their rule. In recent years, anti-American propaganda has become increasingly frequent and strident in Chinese state media, but existing studies have not systematically analyzed how this propaganda portrays the United States and what that might reveal about how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seeks to legitimate itself. Through an analysis of more than 1500 People’s Daily editorials that deal with the United States, we find that alongside propaganda narratives common in many authoritarian regimes, such as that America is a bad actor internationally and a danger to other countries or that America has bad values and is hypocritical about promoting its values, the CCP has also increasingly promoted a new or newly relevant narrative: America is weak and incapable of managing problems at home and abroad. This narrative, which is most prominent in official discourse on America’s handling of COVID-19, bolsters the regime’s legitimacy by making China look strong and effective by comparison. Our findings extend scholarship arguing that the CCP relies on “performance legitimacy” by showing that its propaganda also aims to build relative performance legitimacy—public support based on relative rather than objective accomplishments.

Blame Attribution in Authoritarian Regime: A Survey Experiment in China
Menglin Liu

When government fails, who do citizens blame? This is an important question in authoritarian countries with a centralized system, where the central government is responsible for almost all major decisions. Nonetheless, during public crises, local governments in many authoritarian countries seem to bear the brunt of public criticism. We argue that media play an important role in shaping public opinion through different framings, which are utilized by the central government to scapegoat local governments. To test our hypothesis, we designed a survey experiment, in which respondents were asked to evaluate both central and local government performance in the wake of a natural disaster. We manipulated the information provided to respondents, with some receiving messages blaming central government for any failure while others receiving media cues blaming the local government. We found that respondents in the former group are less satisfied with the central government while those in the latter group reported more positive evaluation of the central government. This framing effect is moderated by respondents’ level of education and pre-exposure to media. Our findings not only have implications for the study of heuristics and media framing under authoritarian context, but also shed light on why the central government in China have consistently y maintained a high level of trust among the Chinese public.