COVID-19 policy disparities reflect differing governing philosophies

It was “wrong to empower scientists” during the pandemic, and lockdown “trade-offs” were never properly discussed, then-UK Tory leadership contender Rishi Sunak recently said, attacking COVID-19 lockdown measures. What “trade-offs” was he referring to? At the time the lockdowns were happening, Sunak was the chancellor of the exchequer, responsible predominately for the economy.

While the West contemplates the balance between public health and economic interests, China stands firm for ordinary people’s lives and health, as reiterated by President Xi Jinping at the opening session of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China on Sunday; and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region must learn from it. During President Xi’s July trip in Hong Kong, he urged Hong Kong leaders to “dismantle the barriers of vested interests”.

This article does not imply the HKSAR government must implement an absolute “zero-COVID” policy to prove itself, as any COVID-19 policy must be formulated according to the circumstances; nor does it litigate the merits and demerits of “zero- COVID” and “living with the virus”. It conducts a comparative study on political structures between the Western democracies and China that contribute to the current COVID-19 policy disparities and what lessons the HKSAR should draw from it.

At the beginning of the outbreak in the United Kingdom, the government was predisposed to the “zero-COVID” objective, and drew up plans for national lockdowns to “turn the tide of the coronavirus”. Meanwhile, the government distributed economic stimulus packages of unprecedented proportions to comfort the heavily impacted business community. However, as time passed, the business community gradually lost patience. Business leaders such as the Confederation of British Industry, the British Chambers of Commerce and the Institute of Directors publicly denounced the government’s approach and joined together to lobby for the easing of the lockdown measures. Citing a news report, business leader Frances Bishop, who founded children’s retail chain The Pud Store, complained that “I’m watching my life’s work be undone every day, and I’m throwing everything at it.”; Gary Forrest, the then-executive chairman of what was then High Street Group, asserted that “the hospitality industry cannot afford to have a poor December”; Charlie Mullins, founder of Pimlico Plumbers, said unequivocally that the government “needs to listen to businesses”. The business community constantly exerted immense pressure on the government to change course.

Under the contemporary constitution of Western democracy, or what I call “capitalistic democracy”, for a politician to be in contention for the top job in his or her country, be it prime minister or president, one must amass an enormous amount of money to fund one’s election campaign, especially for media advertisements to gain name recognition. As former US president Bill Clinton lamented in his autobiography, the press always attacked political parties for accepting large donations from special interests, but paying the press for advertisements has always been one of the major campaign expenditures. Thus, acquiring large amounts of financial resources is imperative for modern politicians to win power in a “capitalistic democracy”. But where does the money come from? The wealthy special interests. When stakeholders donate to political parties, they understandably seek returns, such as in the form of policy articulation that favors their interests. In a nutshell, politicians operating in “capitalistic democracies” cannot afford to ignore the demands of vested interests, as they are the sources of finance that are the prerequisites for politicians’ campaigns to compete for power.

It’s under this institutional setup, when the business community continuously exerted pressure on the UK government to change course, although then-prime minister Boris Johnson signaled in April 2020 that it was too early to lift social distancing measures; that is, before any vaccines were developed, the Business Department set up six working groups with industry to draw up guidelines for the return of employees to different working environments. The government later changed its script, even proceeding with the narrative that “lockdown-related hunger could kill more people than the virus”, and ultimately formulated a road map to lift all lockdown measures.

In stark contrast, China has remained committed to the “dynamic zero-COVID” objective, absorbing businesses’ resistance effectively, thanks to its distinguished political structure and philosophy. In the 4,000 years of civilization, two of the perpetual Chinese governance characteristics have been the separation of politics and businesses and the containment of private capital. Traditionally, most government officials are selected by the principle of meritocracy through examinations for all, except businesspeople. For instance, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), it had been specified that businesspeople were not qualified to take examinations, and people who were selected as government officials through examinations cannot participate in business activities, because it was believed that it was in the nature of businesspeople to look after their private interests, but officials must serve the public interests. The protocols for modern UK civil servants echo the traditional Chinese philosophy thereof. Furthermore, ancient Chinese governments have always been vigilant about the amount of wealth accumulated by private individuals, and cautious about the ability of private individuals in overwhelming the power of the country, hence the policy of containing private capital. The incumbent officials are rooted in their DNA to serve the public interests and be wary of private interests overpowering the state, not just culturally, but also institutionally.

On Dec 4, 2012, the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China reviewed and approved “eight provisions” for improving the working philosophy and maintaining close contact with the masses. They resolutely oppose formalism, bureaucracy, hedonism and extravagance; and they require that the CPC must continue to represent the fundamental interests of the masses, without any special interests of its own, and not to represent the interests of any interest group, any powerful group, nor any privileged class.

These unique Chinese philosophies and governing structures gave the backing for President Xi to proclaim that “it is better to temporarily affect economic development than to harm people’s lives and health”, which is reflected in the “dynamic zero-COVID” policy, putting ordinary people’s lives and health on top of special interests, hence the government of the people, by the people, for the people.

During President Xi’s Hong Kong trip to mark the 25th anniversary of the city’s return to the motherland, he instructed Hong Kong leaders to “take active yet prudent steps to advance reforms and dismantle the barriers of vested interests to unlock enormous creativity and the development potential of Hong Kong society”. This article does not imply the HKSAR government must implement an absolute “zero-COVID” policy to demonstrate it strives to “dismantle the barriers of vested interests” because all COVID-19 policies must be formulated according to the circumstances, but Hong Kong officials must retain the pearls of wisdom from the Chinese governing philosophy, and never articulate a public policy because of lobbying by special interests.

The author is a strategy consultant with a State-owned enterprise and a researcher at a Hong Kong-based think tank.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.